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Why Was Republican Senator Busted in Airport Rest Room?; Gonzales Resigns

Aired August 27, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Lou.
Happening now, a United States senator speaks about his just- revealed arrest and guilty plea. Why was Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig busted in an airport rest room? Tonight, Craig's response to a new report linking him to an investigation of lewd contact.

Also, Alberto Gonzales finally is giving his critics what they want, his resignation as the attorney general. This hour, the reaction, likely replacement, and a president who says his old pal was quote, "dragged through the mud."

And Michael Vick says he is putting his future in God's hands. Now that he's pleaded guilty to dog fighting charges, will the suspended NFL quarterback go to prison or will he be sacked forever?

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

Let's begin tonight with a developing story we are following. U.S. Senator Larry Craig has pled guilty to disorderly contact for an incident in a men's public rest room, where he was arrested in June. A new report revealing the incident says the Idaho Republican was nabbed during an investigation of what's being described as lewd conduct.

Craig confirms he pleaded guilty but he is now saying he shouldn't have and he is denying any inappropriate behavior. Let's go to our congressional correspondents Jessica Yellin. She's watching the story unfold.

It's a very sensitive story, Jessica. Update our viewers on what we know.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, just a few moments ago I spoke to a spokesperson with the county courthouse there in Minneapolis who confirms that Larry Craig did plead guilty to disorderly conduct. He paid a fine of more than $500 and received a sentence of 10 days, which has been stayed for now. He's on unsupervised probation.

Now according to "Roll Call" newspaper, all of this stems from an alleged lewd conduct charge from a Minneapolis airport that happened back in June, but a spokesperson for the senator's office calls it all a misunderstanding, and they released this statement from the senator today. He says "at the time of this incident I complained to the police that they were misconstruing my actions. I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct. I should have had the advice of counsel in resolving this matter. In hindsight, I should not have pled guilty. I was trying to handle this matter myself quickly and expeditiously."

Now, a spokesperson for Senator Craig confirms that he did reach that plea, and he pled guilty without an attorney present. We are also told that the senator is currently on vacation with his wife and family in Idaho and he has no plans to speak publicly at this time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And a little background. A lot of our viewers are not familiar with Senator Larry Craig but he's well known on Capitol Hill as a very conservative Republican.

YELLIN: He is. He's a social conservative and a fiscal conservative, champion of the balanced budget. He has served here for more than 25 years, first in the House and then in the Senate. He's the senior senator from Idaho and very well respected among his peers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin, thanks very much. We're going to have a lot more on this story later this hour. There's additional information coming in. We are vetting it. We will get you more as we get it as well.

But let's move onto another story we are following, a huge development today. Critics say he lacked judgment, even quote, "the spine to say no to Karl Rove." But now some people are saying relentless attacks on Alberto Gonzales actually drove him out of office. He resigned as the attorney general today.

While some applaud Gonzales' action, President Bush says an honorable man's name was simply dragged through the mud. Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is traveling with the president in Bellevue, Washington. He's joining us live.

This was a surprise, even to a lot of officials, top officials in the Bush administration, I take it, Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, a shocking development because this president has spent so much political capital defending his close friend, the attorney general, and also he's been so loyal to his friends from Texas, but as you know, that inner circle now shrinking.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): A president who hates giving in, grudgingly bowed to the political reality. It was time for his close friend to go.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle. And I have reluctantly accepted his resignation. HENRY: But not before one final blast at the critics who drove his attorney general out of office.

BUSH: It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeding from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.

HENRY: In an ironic twist, the president flew from Texas to New Mexico to raise money for Senator Pete Domenici, who is at the center of the U.S. attorney controversy that engulfed Gonzales. For months, the president dug in.

BUSH: This is a man who has testified, he sent thousands of papers up there. There's no proof of wrong. Why would I hold somebody accountable who has done nothing wrong?

HENRY: But the attorney general grew tired of being a punching bag and after a month of soul searching with his wife decided to go, secretly phoning the president Friday. Mr. Bush promptly invited the couple to his ranch for a quiet farewell Sunday. The attorney general visibly relieved.

The president had a wide grin, too. This gives him a fresh start as other problems mount, from difficulties in Iraq to subpoenas flying from Capitol Hill. Even Mr. Bush acknowledged for the first time the controversy had become a problem.

BUSH: After months of unfair treatment that has created harmful -- a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now the president is here in Washington State for another Republican fund-raiser. This day started with some administration officials saying a likely candidate to be the next attorney general was the current homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff. But I can tell you just in the last few minutes, some senior administration officials telling my colleague Suzanne Malveaux that Chertoff's chances have decreased over the course of the day in part because the White House reaches out to various senators. They have criticized Chertoff because of his response to Hurricane Katrina. Wolf?

BLITZER: On another matter, we know whenever the president travels, he's in the motorcade, usually that's zipping along. A horrible incident today, tell our viewers what happened.

HENRY: That's right a tragic incident, Wolf. We've confirmed in fact that a police officer from the Rio Rancho Police Department in New Mexico has died tonight. He sustained an injury. His motorcycle crashed as he was helping with traffic control around the president's motorcade. As you know they travel awfully fast. We understand he left behind a wife and some children.

We don't have his name yet. It has not been released. Bottom line, though, you'll remember back in November as well, another police officer died in Honolulu, also protecting the president, very, very sad news Lou...

BLITZER: Very sad indeed. Ed Henry, thanks very much. Our condolences to the family.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I wonder if this is the end of the Alberto Gonzales affair. There are a number of people in Washington that are convinced this man committed perjury in his testimony before various congressional committees. Can they still pursue those charges if they so choose?

BLITZER: And you know they will.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I bet they do.

All right, check out these fighting words from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Quote, "there are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example, Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. This is severe interference in our domestic affairs. I ask them to come to their senses and talk in a respectful way about Iraq", unquote.

Both Clinton and Levin have called for al-Maliki's ouster when the Iraqi parliament reconvenes and they are not the only ones. The Iraqi prime minister asked for and received an apology from the French, whose foreign minister also had called for him to be replaced. You would think al-Maliki has enough stuff going on at home, what with members of his own government walking out right and left.

The Sunnis, by the way, said last week they have no intention of returning to the parliament. He's got about three weeks before that highly awaited September progress report, which is likely to indicate he's not making a lot of progress. His government, what's left of it, has been on vacation for the last month.

And then there was last week's national intelligence estimate that said quote, "Iraqi leaders remain unable to govern effectively", unquote. Also over this past weekend the Senate's Republican leader Mitch McConnell referred to al-Maliki's government as still pretty much a disaster and Senator John Warner said it had totally failed to deliver security.

So here's the question -- what should be done about the dysfunctional Iraqi government? E-mail your thoughts on that to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. Wolf, they have got a real problem with that government.

BLITZER: Did you notice also that he said earlier amidst some of the initial criticism that if the United States doesn't want to support him, he will find friends elsewhere. This only days after returning from Damascus, where he met with Bashar al-Assad, only days after coming back from Tehran, where he met with Ahmadinejad. This is not the way the situation in Iraq was supposed to unfold, Jack.

CAFFERTY: No, it wasn't. We were supposed to have a nice, happy little village on the hill, a nice democracy there. Now he's saying, hey, you don't want to help me out I got friends over here who will.

BLITZER: Yes, that's what he's saying. All right, Jack. Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Sure.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more coming up on our main stories, including the arrest and the conviction of Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. How did a conservative senator get caught up in an investigation of what's being described as lewd conduct?

Also this...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Through the situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and I just turned my life over to God.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Will a judge and will the fans believe Michael Vick is changing his ways after pleading guilty to dog fighting charges?

Also coming up -- is Fidel Castro dead or alive? We are sorting through new questions, lots of rumors out there, about the ailing Cuban president.

And a new take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and whether U.S. forces let him slip through their fingers. Brian Todd is working on new details.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Michael Vick says he has turned his life over to God and is ready to face the consequences of his actions. The suspended Falcons quarterback formally pleaded guilty today to a federal conspiracy charge related to dog fighting. He will be actually sentenced in December.

Let's bring in Carol Costello. She's watching the story for us. Carol, what happens next?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well his sentencing comes next and he could lose his freedom. That's now up to a Virginia judge who could send Vick to prison for up to five years. But Vick has lost so much more than his freedom. He has lost his job, millions of dollars and his reputation. And today he publicly turned to Jesus and swore he would redeem himself.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) (CHEERING)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Jeers and cheers for Michael Vick as he walked into a Virginia courtroom to plead guilty to a single federal dog fighting conspiracy charge. After facing a judge, his football career in question, along with his multimillion-dollar salary, he faced the nation and spoke of redemption.

MICHAEL VICK, SUSPENDED ATLANTA FALCONS: Dog fighting is a terrible thing, and I didn't reject it. I'm upset with myself. And through this situation I found Jesus, and I asked him for forgiveness and just turned my life over to God.

COSTELLO: He told the nation he badly wanted to redeem himself, was immature and a liar.

VICK: I want to personally apologize to Commissioner Goodell, Arthur Blank, Coach Bobby Petrino, my Atlanta Falcon teammates you know for our previous discussions that we had and I was not honest and forthright in our discussions.

COSTELLO: For that the NFL has suspended Vick without pay. He will lose his $6 million salary this year and perhaps a $22 million signing bonus, but not necessarily his career.

ARTHUR BLANK, ATLANTA FALCONS OWNER: After Michael pays his debt to society and when he does the proper self-reflection, maybe he will have an opportunity to play again in the National Football League.

COSTELLO: It's what Vick is praying for. He's taking advice from, among others, civil rights activist Andrew Young.

ANDREW YOUNG, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I told him, don't give up. Don't lose heart. When you get knocked down, you have to get up and figure out where the next play is going to be.

COSTELLO: But others say Vick and others of his generation have a long way to go to deserve another chance.

CHUCK SMITH, FORMER NFL PLAYER: The reason a guy like Michael Vick who has 130 million, $100 million contract is doing what he's doing, the same reason Paris Hilton is driving around drunk. The same reason Lindsay Lohan had to go to jail.

COSTELLO: And that, Smith says, is that sense of entitlement. That if you're young, rich and famous, there are no consequences. Vick is now learning the hard way, if you play that game, you pay.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Now it is important that Vick appear contrite and sorry for his crimes. That Virginia judge will be weighing Vick's sincerity when he makes a decision on a punishment and that will come on December 10th.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what happen then. Carol, thanks very much.

Now that Michael Vick has submitted his guilty plea, what about the dogs? They are in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Office; approximately 50 dogs were seized from Vick's property in Virginia. They are being held in various shelters in the eastern part of the state.

A team from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will evaluate the dogs and make recommendations. The Humane Society is recommending that all dogs bred and trained for fighting be euthanized.

Just ahead -- we will have more on the arrest and the conviction of Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. He's a conservative member of the Senate caught up now in an investigation of what is being described as lewd conduct.

Also U.S. troops may have come amazingly close to finding the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, but a new report says they came up empty handed; Brian Todd working the story.

And it's eerily similar to the international uproar over Elian Gonzalez, a fight pitting people here in the United States against a father who wants his little girl back in Cuba.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are new questions tonight regarding the hunt for Osama bin Laden, disputes over his whereabouts, his movements and whether U.S. forces missed any chances to get him. Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. He's following these latest developments.

Brian, tell us what you know.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, the questions come as U.S. officials are, again, on the defensive over their intelligence on bin Laden and how he's being protected.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Despite a trail that appears to have gone ice cold, a U.S. counterterrorism official describes the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants as relentless. U.S. officials have recently made very clear where they believe he is.

JOHN KRINGEN, CIA DIRECTOR FOR INTELLIGENCE: We continue to assess that he's probably in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

TODD: An assessment refuted by Pakistani officials. A former CIA officer, who once ran the agency's bin Laden unit, tells CNN he's probably living in houses or compounds in Pakistan, staying in one place for long periods for fear of being spotted. Current U.S. officials have a different take. FRANCES TOWNSEND, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: You can assume just based on sort of operational security behavior that he is moving around. He doesn't make it easy. He doesn't have a lot of contact. And he's in a very remote area that is not easily accessed, certainly by Americans and, frankly, by the Pakistanis themselves.

TODD: But "Newsweek" magazine reports a U.S. military patrol did almost stumble on to bin Laden in one of his hideouts along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border nearly three years ago. The magazine quotes a senior al Qaeda operative saying bin Laden's bodyguards nearly acted on a plan to kill bin Laden and then kill themselves, but "Newsweek" says the Americans, not realizing bin Laden was there, turned away. U.S. officials we spoke to say they have not heard of any such incident but analysts say this about bin Laden's security detail...

STEVE COLL, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: The former bodyguard to Osama says that when he was in Osama's employ, just before 9/11, Osama authorized him to take Osama's life in the event that he faced imminent capture and that he had a particular gun that he planned to use.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: So is bin Laden alive now? He's not been heard from on audiotape for more than a year and not made a video in nearly three years. U.S. officials say they do believe he's alive and analysts say even if his aides wanted to keep his death a secret to keep the mystique going, they probably wouldn't be able to keep for very long, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thanks very much for that story.

There's another story we are following in the region right now. It involves the United Nations' office on drugs and crime. It released its annual opium survey today with startling news about Afghanistan's opium cultivation.

Land used for poppy fields in Afghanistan, regions in red here on the screen, now exceeds cocoa cultivation in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined. Helmand province specifically in Afghanistan, that province alone has become the world's largest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries.

The Taliban, incidentally, have reversed their 2000 edict against poppy cultivation and are now profiting from the opium trade. According to this U.N. report, what used to be considered a sin for the Taliban is now encouraged.

We have been telling you about the arrest and the conviction of a United States senator, reportedly a connection with what's being described as lewd behavior in a men's bathroom at the airport in Minnesota. Now, we will be speaking to a reporter who's been covering the senator for some 20 years. That's coming up. Also a Cuban newspaper publishing an essay signed by Fidel Castro, is it enough to silence rumors that he's very sick, perhaps even dead?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, more bad news for homeowners looking to cash out, Americans are facing the biggest flood of homes on the market in almost 16 years. According to new data from the National Association of Realtors, home prices also fell for the 12th straight month in July.

The FAA is ordering airlines to conduct new inspections after a China airlines Boeing 737 exploded on the tarmac in Japan last week. An initial investigation said a faulty part on the plane's wing may have led to a fuel leak that caused the explosion.

And America's waist line just keeps swelling. A new report shows two-thirds of American adults are now overweight or even obese. The authors call obesity a national epidemic in our country.

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

Let's get back to our lead story right now. U.S. Senator Larry Craig now confirming he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after being arrested in a men's public bathroom at the airport in Minneapolis this summer. Reports out tonight say Craig was arrested in what the investigation is calling lewd conduct.

Craig denies any inappropriate behavior but the "Idaho Statesman" newspaper has been conducting an extensive investigation into other allegations of inappropriate conduct by Senator Craig.

Rocky Barker is joining us now. He's a longtime reporter for the "Idaho Statesman". He's on the phone. He's joining us right now. Rocky, thanks very much for joining us.

How surprised were you by these allegations that he pled guilty to inappropriate -- whatever he pled guilty to, to doing disorderly conduct at the airport in Minnesota?

ROCKY BARKER, REPORTER, "IDAHO STATESMAN" (via phone): I was shocked, just as I'm sure all Idahoans are, that something this -- you know there would be these legal issues that would come out.

BLITZER: Because there have been allegations swirling against Senator Craig for some time. I know you guys are working on your own story on this. That you're presumably going to be publishing pretty soon. But give us a little flavor of -- a little background on the senator.

BARKER: Well, Senator Craig has -- he's a rancher and he went to Congress in 1980. He's always been one of a very strong conservative. He was one of the first supporters of the balanced budget amendment. He's a strong supporter of the timber industry, the mining industry, big oil, nuclear power and he led the way in the impeachment of President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

BLITZER: And what do people in Idaho think about the senator? Obviously, he gets re-elected. He's up for re-election pretty soon but gets re-elected all the time.

BARKER: The senator has always had strong support in Idaho. Now, that support has degraded a little bit because of his efforts on immigration. But other than that, he's always got re-elected by strong margins.

BLITZER: There were allegations against him last year involving other inappropriate behavior, if you will. And he released a public statement on that. What exactly happened?

BARKER: At the time, a liberal gay activist guy by the name of Mike Rogers came out and outed Senator Craig, said that he knew that Senator Craig was gay. And several newspapers and other publications followed his allegations and Senator Craig at the time flatly denied it. Our newspaper did not run even the allegations and instead began an extensive investigation.

BLITZER: The story that you guys are working on that may be published as early as later today, that involves your investigation on this matter. Is that right?

BARKER: That's correct. We are going to reveal -- not to reveal, but just to report what we found.

BLITZER: Can you give us a preview on that, or do you have to wait?

BARKER: I think you have to wait to get to all of the details. I will tell you that we have done quite a bit of look into this. And Senator Craig, as he has to the charges in Minnesota, he still flatly denies that any of the charges.

BLITZER: And right now he's not making any personal statements, if you will. A spokesman are releasing that carefully worded statement. But he's somewhere in Idaho on vacation with his family, is that right?

BARKER: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, Rocky Barker, we will watch your website and go there from the Idaho Statesman as soon as you guys post that story. We will share some of the conclusions. I know you have an excellent team of reporters out there and you've worked on this story a long time. We will get that story to our viewers as soon as it's posted. Rocky Barker joining us from the Idaho Statesman.

Let's talk a little bit more now about Senator Craig's arrest, his guilty plea, the circumstances surrounding it with our own senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin.

He says he should have consulted an attorney before he went ahead and decided to plead guilty to disorderly conduct. What do you make of that, Jeff?

JEFF TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well you know I'm just going by the story in "Roll Call" by the description of what Senator Craig was found doing. And you know to put it simply, it seemed like he was playing footsie beneath the stalls of a men's room, which is apparently a common spot for gay assignations at the Minneapolis Airport. He was arrested and pled guilty.

That doesn't fit into my understanding of what disorderly conduct was. But my sense is, this was more a political judgment by Senator Craig than a legal one, hoping that he could get rid of it in Minneapolis, no one would ever find out. Obviously, if he went to trial, he would have exposed the accusation. Now he's got the worst of both worlds. He's got the accusations but he pled guilty to it.

BLITZER: Because it really it's hard to believe that an educated member of the U.S. Senate would go ahead and plead guilty to a serious charge without even talking to a lawyer about it, knowing that all of this information goes public, there's a public record and inevitably it would get out.

TOOBIN: Well, you know, you and I make our living off of people doing things that are so unaccountably stupid, that you can't imagine that they do them. I mean, they do them anyway. Yes, it obviously was a terribly moronic thing to plead guilty to a crime without the advice of a lawyer, if that is in fact what he did. But this is -- this was apparently a high-risk behavior that he was engaged in. He got caught and figured this was the best way out of the scenario. But I think he miscalculated, to put it mildly.

BLITZER: Because the allegations are that -- he's insisting the undercover police officer, who was in that bathroom, misunderstand why he was tapping his feet in the stall next to the other stall. And that started this chain of events, which results in the disorderly conduct charge and eventually an eventual decision to plead guilty. This all according to the newspaper "Roll Call" here in Washington.

TOOBIN: Right. And if that is his defense, the undercover cop misinterpreted everything, OK, that's fine. Then go to trial and prove that the undercover cop was wrong. But Craig's problem is he pled guilty. So how does he claim there was some misunderstanding here, that his conduct was entirely innocent, when in fact he has already pled guilty to disorderly conduct? That's why both of his behavior and his subsequent handling of the legal situation are totally mystifying to me.

BLITZER: I guess you can make the argument he pled guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge as opposed to, perhaps, there could have been more serious charges if he would have gone to trial.

TOOBIN: Yes, that's true. But once you're in the general area of pleading guilty to crimes committed in men's rooms, you're in a pretty bad place politically and legally. So I mean I think you're right that he probably thought it could be worse but it's pretty bad as it is.

BLITZER: Jeff Toobin, Thanks very much. We're going to continue to watch that story. We're waiting to see that story that's posted on the Idaho Statesman as well. They have been working on this story now for some six months. Once we get that, we will share it with you as well.

Senator Larry Craig was appointed co-chairman of the Idaho leadership team for Mitt Romney. A video of Senator Craig endorsing Romney had been available on YouTube.com. Let's go to our internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's getting more information about this.

What do we know, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, that video right now is inaccessible. We just went to it and tried to see exactly what Senator Larry Craig said on the video. Senator Larry Craig shares thoughts on Mitt Romney, but you can't get to it. It was posted five months ago and if you go there now, this is what you will see. This is a private video, meaning that the settings are such that not everyone can view it, unlike other things that appear on Mitt Romney's You Tube page. Now the web site the Politico is reporting that about an hour or so, that wasn't this case. You could get this video at that point but now you can't. Our calls to the Romney campaign were not immediately returned. Again in May, Romney named Craig state co- chair for his Idaho leadership team.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you very much for that, Abbi. We will stay on top of this story.

Healthcare politics getting very personal on a day when presidential candidates have been talking about the fight against cancer, we're going to examine their plans and how they're informed by their own painful experiences. Several of the candidates have had to deal themselves with their own cancer.

And more grist for the rumor on Fidel Castro's health. Is the ailing Cuban leader dead or alive? We're looking closely into this story. We'll go to Havana.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some of the democratic presidential candidates are zeroing in today on the fight against cancer. For some of them and their republican presidential counterparts, the issue of health care hits very close to home.

Here's CNN's Mary Snow.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Elizabeth Edwards' public battle with cancer as her husband runs for president is playing an unprecedented role in the 2008 race. But cancer and other serious health problems are also playing a bigger role among the candidates themselves.

These candidates are openly confronting something once considered taboo, their health and in several cases cancer. Among republicans for Fred Thompson, it's lymphoma, the most common blood cancer. For John McCain and Senator Sam Brownback, it's melanoma, a sometimes fatal skin cancer and for Rudy Giuliani, prostate cancer. Democrat Joe Biden did not have cancer but he writes in his new book about the brain aneurysms he suffered after dropping out of the 1988 presidential race. He was absent from the Senate for several months. Mentioning medical terms was once off-limits on the campaign trail but now they're often a topic brought up for discussion.

ROBERT GILBERT, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: I think this is a very serious issue, a potentially very, very serious issue, one that could certainly break a campaign. Not make a campaign but certainly break one.

SNOW: Take the case of President Kennedy. Historian Robert Dallek says it was only in recent years that he discovered JFK had been hospitalized several times in the 1950s before he ran for president.

ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: They consistently hid this from the public because they feared it would have known the extent of the health problems he had, it might have destroyed his candidacy in 1960.

SNOW: Fast forward to the 1992 presidential case. Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas talked about his bone marrow transplant to fight lymphoma. He openly demonstrated his stable health by swimming and said he was cancer free. He died five years later. Had he been elected, he would have eventually been incapacitated and died in his presidency.

With Tsongas's situation in mind, Fred Thompson said even though he is not officially a candidate, he wanted to be the first to tell the public about 2004 diagnosis with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He made his doctors available to explain that unlike Tsongas, Thompson's form of lymphoma is slow moving and in remission.

DR. BRUCE CHESON, FRED THOMPSON'S DOCTOR: His likelihood of recurring is high but this may not happen for a number of years.

SNOW: Thompson's doctor says if the lymphoma does reoccur, there are effected treatments that will not interfere with his quality of life to a great extent. Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York in 2000 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, just as he was willing to challenge Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate. He dropped his plans and underwent radiation treatment.

The American Cancer Society says while most men with prostate cancer don't die from it, approximately 27,000 men a year do die of the disease.

RUDI GIULIANI, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: I think for all intents and purposes, the cancer is cured. SNOW: Giuliani says he gets tested every six months.

For John McCain medical checkups are more frequent after getting the most serious form the skin cancer, melanoma, removed from his arm and temple in 2000.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: My health is excellent. I see my dermatologist every three months.

SNOW: McCain is known to be extremely careful in the sun. Doctors say early detection is crucial since it can be aggressive and fatal if it invades the body. But doctors say for many a cancer diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was. And with new treatments all the time, even five years can make a big difference.

DR. RICHARD WENDER, PRES., AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: For some people with certain cancers, those five years is a difference between life and death.

SNOW: We contacted all the campaigns of the candidates we mentioned. All say the candidates are in good health. And in the case of John McCain, who turned 71 this week, he's the oldest candidate, a spokeswoman said he will be releasing medical records to prove he's in good health. Something he's done in the past.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, with this story. Mary, thanks very much, very comprehensive.

He has not been seen in public for more than a year. So where is Fidel Castro? There are rumors circulating right now that the ailing Cuban leader has died. We're going to go Havana to sort out the facts on Castro's condition.

And a little Cuban girl in the middle of a brewing custody battle. Her biological dad is in Florida to take her back to Cuba but a couple that wants to adopt the girl says her home is right here in the United States, shades of Elian Gonzales. We're watching this story. Details coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Abbi Tatton. She's getting some new information on Larry Craig, the republican senator from Idaho, who has now pled guilty to disorderly conduct at a Minneapolis airport.

Is this political fallout happening now, Abbi?

TATTON: Wolf, we just told you a few minutes ago about a video that Senator Larry Craig appeared in and it was on the Mitt Romney for president You Tube page. It had disappeared. We were looking into what happened there. Craig in May was named by Romney a state co- chair by his Idaho leadership team. We got a response about what had happened there from the Romney campaign. This is from Matt Rhodes, the communications director of the Romney campaign. "Senator Craig has stepped down from his role with the campaign. He did not want to be a distraction and we accept his decision."

Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much, Abbi Tatton watching this story.

Other news we are following, where is Fidel Castro? What's more, how is he doing? There are new questions, new rumors circulating right now about the ailing Cuban president's condition. It began in south Florida over the weekend and then the reclusive leader emerged, at least in writing. CNN's Morgan Neill has some details.

Morgan.

MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Cuban newspapers this weekend published a new essay by Fidel Castro, amid rumors in Miami the ailing 81-year-old leader died. Castro has not appeared in public for more than a year. It was in early June the last time we saw a new video of the ailing president. Now in the latest essay published in "Juventud Rebelde" -- "Rebel Youth" -- Castro talks primarily about a Cuban politician from the 1950s. He makes no mention of his own health. But the timing of the essay is important. It comes just two days after the latest round of rumors swept the exiled community in Miami into a frenzy.

Just last week Cuba's foreign minister said Castro was doing well and he's being very disciplined in his recovery. Cuban officials have consistently said he's recovery is going well but has avoided questions about when, or even if, he could reassume his powers as president.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Morgan Neill our man in Havana reporting for us. Thank you.

Morgan, it's a scenario that calls up memories of young Cuban refugee, Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban father in a south Florida court trying to get his young child back. This time it's a battle over the custody of a little girl but the battle is opening old wounds.

Here's CNN's national correspondent, Susan Candiotti.

Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the trial now under way in Miami has some similarities to the case of Elian Gonzalez but without all of the media hoopla.

It's hard not to draw comparisons to Elian Gonzalez when one of the main players in this custody battle is the man seen here tossing a baseball to then 6-year-old Elian. Former Miami sports agent Joe Cubas and his wife are foster parents to a little Cuban girl, who at the request of a judge, the media has agreed not to identify. Unlike Elian, the girl's Cuban father did not object when his daughter moved with her mother and 13-year-old half brother to Miami in 2005. But soon after arriving the mother attempted suicide and the state of Florida judged her unfit to be a parent. The mother lost custody of both children.

Ever since, the girl's father, a farmer in Cuba, has been fighting to take his daughter home and won a visa, just as Elian's father did, to wage his situation in person. "I am her father and adore my daughter very much," says Rafael Izquierdo. He adds, "I'm a father who's proven his love for his daughter. Of course I believe the children belong with their parents." While foster parents to the girl, Cubas and his wife already have adopted the girl's half brother. They argue children should not be split.

JOE CUBAS, FOSTER PARENT: I don't believe this is a matter of where their better life could be provided. The more important issue is these two children have been together their entire lives.

CANDIOTTI: Cubas won fame for helping Cuban baseball players to defect, including major league pitchers Orlando and Livan Hernandez. The little girl's father says politics and fame aren't the issue, blood lines are.

Anonymous American donors are paying for the father's trip here and his lawyers are working for free, too. By the way, the mother said she thinks the children ought to return to Cuba and she says she wants to go home too because she's disenchanted with life here.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Susan, thanks very much, Susan Candiotti reporting.

Let's check in with Rick Sanchez to see what's coming up right at the top of the hour in our "OUT IN THE OPEN" hour.

Rick, what's going on?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey Wolf, always good to see you. This story that you have been talking about involving the bathroom and the senator in Minneapolis or in Minnesota, we are obviously going to be all over that, making some phone calls, going to bring you the very latest as we get information on that.

Also, we are following Gonzalez's resignation. He was, some say, in over his head or was he just a victim of a political hatchet job?

Those are the questions. We're going to have some guests in here. We're going to be debating that.

Also, the question nobody really has had the nerve ask about Michael Vick. Is he being punished for being a rich athlete who happens to be back? And just how much is this actually going to cost him? We will bring in some people who are making those points. They're putting them out in the open and we're going to share them with you and throw them about. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Rick. It sounds good. We'll be watching. Thanks very much.

Is Iraq's government dysfunctional? We're going to hear your thoughts on that when we share your email. Jack Cafferty with the Cafferty File, that's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Check back with Jack Cafferty. It's been a busy day, Jack. A lot of news going on.

CAFFERTY: Indeed. For a Monday in the summer with the Congress on vacation, a lot of stories.

The question this hour, Wolf, is what should be done about the dysfunctional Iraqi government?

Lanny writes from Hilo, Hawaii, "The Iraqi government cannot overcome its position in the eyes of many Iraqi citizens as a tool of the occupying power or, worse, a tool of the Crusaders returned to the Middle East. These perceptions prevent the government from establishing its legitimacy within the community. It's the occupation that's the problem, not the Iraqi government."

Mike writes, "We should withdraw our troops from Iraq ASAP and let the Arabs and Iranians all over the Middle East kill and cripple each other. The fewer of them there are and the fewer arms they have, the safer we will be."

Kathy writes, "How about we leave Iraq and its government to its own people and deal instead with our own totally dysfunctional government?"

Steven in Wichita, Kansas, "A form of government (democracy) has been forced upon the Iraqi people and they don't seem to like it. Remember the British trying to rule the American colonists? We revolted and so will the Iraqis. Only they know what kind of government they want and they must figure it out themselves in order for it to last."

Randy in Illinois, "We should get Saudi Arabia and Iran to talk to each other about Iraq right now. We have to deal with Iran sooner or later. Otherwise, we may as well give Iraq to Muqtada al-Sadr, because he is going to take it anyway."

Peter in Vista, California writes, "Regarding al-Maliki, we should invade Iraq and get rid of him. We always do better the second time around."

Dave in Alabama, "I don't give a damn about the Iraqi government. Just send me a free book."

And Dave in San Jose, California, "Was this question submitted by the Bush administration?"

If you didn't see your email here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. We put more of them there online along with video clips of this deal here.

BLITZER: Everybody's going to be talking about the book. We're talking about your book that's coming out September 10th because the title, "It's Getting Ugly Out There," take a look at today with Michael Vick, now Larry Craig, the Alberto Gonzalez. Jack, it is getting ugly out there.

CAFFERTY: Well, I'd like to think I was prescient but I'm just lucky maybe.

BLITZER: I think you're very lucky. The frauds, the bunglers, the liars, the losers. The book is coming out September 10th. More to come on that. Jack, see you tomorrow. Thanks.

CAFFERTY: Thanks Wolf.

BLITZER: We're here in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern, back for another hour at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Until tomorrow, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Up next, Rick Sanchez with "OUT IN THE OPEN."

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