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THE SITUATION ROOM
Possibility of Troop Pullouts From Iraq; Dems Hope for Drawdown Support
Aired September 3, 2007 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, President Bush's secret trip to Iraq. Only days before a major report on the war's progress, the president has a stinging message for the Congress and a special message about troop pullouts.
Next steps for a disgraced senator. Larry Craig resigns after being busted in a sex sting operation in a men's bathroom, but can he clear his name?
And it's Labor Day. Do you know where your presidential candidates are?
They're shaking hands, they're kissing babies, they're vying for votes. Find out where.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Next stop for President Bush, Australia. This, after he pulled off a major surprise today under strict cover of secrecy. He went to a place possibly too dangerous for him to go to only a year or two ago.
In Iraq, President Bush praised troops for quieting the killing fields of the Al Anbar province. Mr. Bush held up successes there as an example of what could happen for the rest of the country.
And weeks before Americans hear a major report on the war's progress -- actually, next week that report will be released -- the president talked about the possibility of troops coming home.
Let's go our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's joining us now.
Ed, it was a symbolic step, at least at a minimum, the fact that the president himself showed up at the Al Anbar province.
ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Very much so, Wolf. And the most significant part is the president again told Congress today to wait for this progress report, do not prejudge it. But Mr. Bush is clearly jumping to conclusions himself. He's not waiting. He said today that things look so good on the ground that U.S. troops may be pulled out soon.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HENRY (voice over): The president's third secret trip to Iraq comes at a critical juncture. So he seized the chance to influence public opinion about the upcoming progress report on how the surge is working.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces.
HENRY: But the president still would not say how many troops would be coming home or how soon, and he was even lighter on specifics when he addressed a rousing group of 600 Marines.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our commander in chief, the president of the United States.
HENRY: He stuck to assaults and alliterations at a mess hall at the Al Assad Air Base in Al Anbar province.
BUSH: Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media. In other words, when we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure.
HENRY: Air Force One landed under a shroud of secrecy in Anbar, the president skipping Baghdad in an apparent sign of his frustration with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's lack of progress.
Stopping in Anbar gave Mr. Bush a chance to highlight success in a province once believed to be lost. But in a briefing with a marine Cobra pilot, Mr. Bush also heard some negatives about extended troop rotations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then stress on the families. Year after year, when we've been home for five months, it's become a little harder each time to get in a normal routine back in the United States.
HENRY: As Air Force One waited to take him to Australia for a summit, the president mingled with marines. His shirt working in Iraq's triple-digit heat.
HENRY: Now, White House officials expect that given those pictures of the president with the marines, critics will dismiss this as one big photo-op meant to prop up an unpopular war, but White House officials insist that's not the case. They say it was critical for the president to get an up-close look at progress on the ground. So important, in fact, that they took extraordinary steps to keep this secret, whisking the president away last night in just a two-car motorcade here from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base.
As you know, Wolf, that is extremely, extremely rare -- Wolf. BLITZER: Very rare, indeed.
It's interesting. He was supposed to leave around 11:00 this morning for the Asian-Pacific Economic Summit out in Australia. Instead, as you say, he left last night, sneaking out of the White House in that very small motorcade.
Give us a little bit more on how they managed to pull off a surprise like this and caught virtually all of us off guard.
HENRY: Well, we had been hearing rumors about this for a couple weeks, Wolf. We had all been digging around trying to confirm whether it's true.
Given the security concerns, obviously, it's virtually impossible to get the White House to admit that he was going to do this. They say they were planning it secretly for weeks now, and what they basically did was took a small group of reporters who would be on Air Force One, just told them over the weekend, swore them to secrecy, said they could tell one of their bosses that they would be heading to Iraq instead of Australia, and basically kept them -- you know, held it in secrecy and then had them go to Andrews Air Force Base to a different gate and park their cars in a different lot, basically, than where reporters normally go, because you know the rest of the press corps that's already headed to Australia, they were already at Andrews Air Force base and might have been tipped off if they saw the president or other reporters.
So these reporters taken to a whole different area -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And it's interesting they actually used the 747 Air Force One familiar to all of our viewers to fly into the Al Assad Air Base in the Al Anbar province instead of a C-130 or a C-5, a huge military transport plane. They felt pretty secure, I take it, at that huge military complex.
Ed Henry at the White House for us.
Thanks very much.
The positive words from President Bush about Iraq's progress may influence many Americans, but many are also wondering if lawmakers in the process will be swayed.
Our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is joining us now.
You're hearing, Jessica, I take it, that some Democratic leaders are now reaching out to Republicans to find some sort of middle ground, if you will, a compromise to a deal with a troop withdrawal?
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're looking for it, Wolf. That's absolutely right. And a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tells me the senator has been on the phone for the past week reaching out to Republicans, trying to learn where they stand on the war right now, looking for some of those votes. And they tell me that right now, Harry Reid has found no new Republican votes for a drawdown.
YELLIN (voice over): Iraq, starkly different assessments.
REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY (R), LOUISIANA: I have much more confidence that the plan that is being utilized is actually working. It's not just a military surge, but there's also the work of the provincial reconstruction teams on the ground.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK (D), FLORIDA: I came back with the reality that we still have to make major, major political leaps in Iraq. If we don't, then the military effort will be for naught.
YELLIN: In the next 10 days, Congress will hear testimony on three different Iraq reports. From General James Jones, the former top U.S. commander in Europe, his findings on the progress of Iraq's security forces. From the head of the Government Accountability Office, the GAO's independent assessment of Iraq's progress on 18 benchmarks set out by Congress. And next week, the most anticipated testimony of all from General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, their assessment of Iraq's success meeting those same benchmarks.
Already, some in the majority are warning of possible White House interference. The challenge for Democrats, finding a compromise to win the votes of Republicans who are wavering in support of the war. Among them, moderates Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Gordon Smith. Possibly John Warner, as well as Norm Coleman, Pete Domenici and Richard Lugar.
YELLIN: Democrats should not expect to win many converts. That's according to one republican Senate leadership aide who says Republicans are actually in a stronger position on Iraq right now than they were before recess began. That's because there have been some reports of progress in Iraq, as you know -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And the members come back tomorrow.
How quickly should we expect that first vote on a troop withdrawal, Jessica?
YELLIN: The folks I'm talking to expect debate to begin the end of the second week, certainly by the third. And they're looking for a vote by the end of this month.
BLITZER: Jessica Yellin watching this story for us, our congressional correspondent.
And we're going to be hearing directly from President Bush. He gave an interview to our network pool correspondent on the ground in the Al Anbar province. We're going to play that interview for you later here in THE SITUATION ROOM, but there's other news we're following. And that includes the senator who was busted in that sting operation in a men's room. It's not -- he's not paying a very, very high political price after members of his own party effectively pushed him out. Some say Senator Larry Craig though should be fighting right now to clear his name in a much more aggressive manner.
Let's go to our congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's out in Boise, Idaho.
The senators now -- now that he's announced his intent to resign, he's hearing some words of encouragement. Update our viewers on what's going on.
DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, a big part of Craig's problem was that he got no defense, no one in his own Republican Party came to his defense last week. And there is some support now, but it may be too little too late, especially since his constituents here in Idaho are already trying to move past the week-long drama that engulfed the state.
BASH (voice over): Harvest Fest is a Boise Labor Day tradition. This year, the buzz here isn't so much about the local crafts. It's the rapid downfall of their senator, Larry Craig.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just want to know what the man was thinking.
BASH: There is outrage and disappointment.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a lot of empathy for the family, and I feel it's a very sad situation.
BASH: And growing resentment towards Craig's fellow Republicans in Washington who pressured him to resign.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the Republican Party has a tendency to eat its own.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He should not have resigned.
BASH (on camera): Why?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He should have fought it.
BASH (voice over): Now, after Craig stepped down in the face of no support from Senate colleagues, one is defending him. Republican Senator Arlen Specter things Craig could win a legal battle to overturn his guilty plea admitting to misconduct in a men's room.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: He's got his life on the line and 27 years in the House and Senate, and I'd like to see him fight the case because I think he could be vindicated.
BASH: But it will be very hard for Craig to clear his name legally and politically. Republican leaders eager to show voters they will no longer tolerate scandal are boasting about pushing Craig out.
SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R), NEVADA: That's one of the things I'm proudest about our leadership, is the swift action. Sending the signal to him that it was probably best that he resign.
BASH: One political expert in Idaho says that could backfire.
JIM WEATHERBY, BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY: In some respect they've shot themselves in the foot. It appears that compassion is not one of the family values of these Republican leaders.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we'll miss him, but life goes on.
BASH: Back at the Harvest Fest, Idahoans are just glad the unexpected drama that rocked their state is coming to an end.
BASH: Now, Craig said he won't resign until the end of the month, and his aides say it is still unclear when or if he'll return to Washington to cast votes, and also come face to face with his Republican colleagues there who forced him out so abruptly -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, Dana, Senator Specter said Craig has a good legal case to get his guilty plea thrown out of court, but what are you hearing out there?
BASH: Hearing here and really sort of around the country in talking to legal experts that Senator Specter seems to have the contrarian view here. That certainly it is possible to have a guilty plea thrown out, but it is very, very, very rare for that to happen.
Perhaps in some cases where there seems to be police misconduct, but in this particular case, first of all, when you have not just sort of a guy off the street, if you will, you have a United States senator signing a piece of paper saying very clearly on that plea agreement, you see it, that he understands that in signing this he knows he is not innocent. That's pretty tough for somebody who swears to uphold the laws of the land, for him to come back and say, well, I didn't really mean it.
So, it's going to be very hard. In fact, Wolf, one legal expert told us, "I think Larry Craig has a better chance of getting reelected in Idaho than having those charges thrown out at this point" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Dana. Thanks very much.
Dana Bash reporting from Boise.
We want to take a closer look now at what might happen now that Senator Craig has decided to resign amid this scandal. Idaho's Republican governor, Butch Otter, will name his replacement. It would almost certainly be a Republican.
That person would serve until the end of Senator Craig's term in January 2009. But he or she could run for the seat outright in next year's election. We assume he or she will.
Several Republicans are said to be interested in Craig's seat. They include Congressman Mike Simpson; former governor, the current U.S. Interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne; and Lieutenant Governor James Risch. Former congressman Larry LaRocco was already running for Craig's seat before this scandal, but LaRocco is considered a long shot in the predominantly Republican state of Idaho.
Jack Cafferty has the day off. He'll be back tomorrow with "The Cafferty File".
Coming up, major political labor. As you enjoy your day off from work -- we hope you are -- the presidential candidates are working for your vote. We're going to tell you where they are. They're shaking hands, they're kissing babies. That's what they're doing.
It's a storm packing a big punch. There's a worrisome hurricane swirling out there. We're going to tell you where it is right now and where it's expected to strike.
And dangerous liaisons. Today, President Bush met with some people once enemies of the U.S. The president about to tell us how those meetings went.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Bush today met with some people who once advocated death to the United States, death to the U.S. military. Let's get some more now on our top story, the president's secret trip to Iraq where he met with some former al Qaeda sympathizers.
President Bush spoke with our network pool correspondent, John Yang (ph).
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: You know, I've come to Iraq for my third time, and every time I've come I marvel at what a great country we have because our citizens are so -- you know, so willing to serve.
The other thing is, I met with some sheikhs, local sheikhs, who made a determination that the al Qaeda vision is something they didn't want to live under. They do want to live under freedom, and, therefore, they and their people turned against al Qaeda, which has helped change the landscape here in Anbar province.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell us a little bit about that meeting. What was that like to meet people who had been opponents of the United States that have now turned around.
BUSH: Well, some of these -- some of these guys are kind of grizzled vets. And first of all, they were pleased that the president of the United States came. They view us as an ally.
Secondly, they were very gracious about thanking America and the troops for helping them liberate their own people.
And third, they want to make sure that the central government people that were there understood that now that Anbar is getting better, they expect there to be response from the central government.
I told -- I told them that the government has distributed $107 million to Anbar province, which then caused them to look at their governor. But you know, it just reminded me how the political systems work.
But it was really an interesting visit. And I'm glad I came to see these men.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These sheikhs obviously had a short-term goal in common, wanting to get rid of the violence and get rid of al Qaeda, who were causing the violence. Are you confident they share the same long-term vision for Iraq?
BUSH: Well, all I can tell you is that the man said that, one, that he believes in democracy. And two, they expect this government to adhere to the principles of the constitution that was passed.
And I do. I feel very comfortable that they understand that -- you know, that a united Iraq is in their interest.
One of the things they kept talking about was Iran. And they know full well that Iraqi nationalism trumps the Iranian influence, but they also know that a united Iran -- Iraq is necessary to deal with Iran.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened today? Your experienced today, what you heard, what you saw, going to fit into your September 15th report -- the preparation for that?
BUSH: Well, the main ingredients in that report for me to report to the country will be what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker report. And I had a little glimpse of what they talked about.
They believe that the security situation is changing quite dramatically, and they recognize as well there's more political reconciliation work to be done. And so -- and they'll come and report, and I will take their recommendations and put it into a -- you know, a speech to the country and explain the way forward.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And later here in THE SITUATION ROOM, our Michael Ware will join us from Baghdad with his assessment of what the president accomplished, didn't accomplish today in the Al Anbar province. That's coming up.
Also, Michigan and Florida, they're two of the most important states in the presidential process. So why are some Democratic presidential candidates saying they won't -- repeat, won't -- campaign there?
We're going to tell you about a possible political protest.
And Democrats control the Senate by a razor-thin margin. Will they be able to put a firmer grip on their power for next year's election? The numbers in the current political climate are working right now against the Republicans.
All this coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Up next, just a short time ago, two major labor unions announced who they're backing in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. We're going to tell you who picked up these key endorsements.
Here is a hint, though. It wasn't the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, but she's got perhaps an even bigger weapon. That would be her husband. They made a rare public campaign stop together in New Hampshire. What does that say about how confident she's feeling right now?
We're going to take a closer look at this and other issues in our "Strategy Session".
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Happening now, "Dead Certain," that's the title of a brand new book to be officially released tomorrow on President Bush. It offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at his administration and it reveals the president's thoughts on what's life going to be like after he leaves the White House.
We're going to give you a sneak preview here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Also, "Hollywood" and "conservative" are not typically words you hear in the same sentence. But Jon Voight, the film star father of the actress Angelina Jolie, is weighing in on her humanitarian work and the war in Iraq. You might be surprised by some of the things he's saying.
That's coming up as well.
Plus, a health warning about popcorn. A substance used to give microwave popcorn its buttery taste could be dangerous.
We're going to tell you what you need to know so you won't be worried.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Years ago today, Labor Day marked the traditional beginning of the presidential primary campaign. These days, the campaign kicks into high gear much, much earlier in the year, and even last year. And now some states are trying to move up their dates of their primaries as well. And it's led to a huge political battle within the Democratic Party.
Let's go to CNN's senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's covering the story for us.
Give us some of the details of this battle, Bill.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it's Labor Day. Do you know when your primary is?
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): What if you gave a primary and nobody came? That could happen in Florida and Michigan, which are trying to hold early primaries. Six Democratic candidates have signed a pledge not to campaign in states that jump the gun.
Wait a minute. Democrats are saying they're not going to campaign in Michigan, the homeland of organized labor, and Florida, where Al Gore was just a few chads short of becoming president? What does that mean? It means that Iowa and New Hampshire are still as important as ever, maybe more important.
Want evidence? Look at where the candidates spent Labor Day weekend. Iowa: Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Republicans John McCain and Fred Thompson. New Hampshire: Democrats Barack Obama and Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, Republican Mitt Romney.
Anybody in Florida or Michigan? Nope. Will the candidates dare to ignore those vote-rich states? Yes. It costs a lot of money to campaign in those big states.
JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It should be based on substance, real ideas, and who can actually change the country, who has the personal characteristics to be president, not on fund-raising.
SCHNEIDER: But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama signed the pledge, and they have got the money to campaign in Florida and Michigan. But they dare not insult Iowa and New Hampshire.
Obama and Edwards are hoping to score a breakthrough in Iowa, where the top three Democrats are virtually tied. If that happens, Clinton will have to rely on New Hampshire to make her the comeback kid. Everyone agrees the primary system needs fixing, but they also agree on something else.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But we got to fix it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
MCCAIN: We need to fix it, and we need to preserve the Iowa caucuses.
SCHNEIDER: Don't mess with Iowa and New Hampshire. They still call the shots.
SCHNEIDER: The whole idea of letting Iowa and New Hampshire go first is that they're small and they require face-to-face campaigning. To run in Florida and Michigan, you have to spend a lot of money on TV ads, but those poor voters may not see as many ads as they had hoped -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Bill Schneider watching the story, big fight within the Democratic Party.
Bill, thank you.
John Edwards is their man. Today, the Democratic presidential candidate picked up two major endorsements. The United Steel Workers and the United Mine Workers of America say they will support Edwards. Word of their support came as Edwards campaigned today in Pittsburgh. And he praised the men and women who helped build this nation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: America wasn't built on Wall Street. America was built by men and women who were steel workers, who were mine workers, who went out and worked with their backs and with their hands and made this country what it is today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate Senator Sam Brownback spent time courting votes in the South.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R-KS), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... can do very well in South Carolina. I think the values that I represent, what I have done, the foreign policy experience that I have fits very well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stopped off in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he talked about experience.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I might not have the experience Washington likes, but I believe I have the experience America needs right now.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: And the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, also was in New Hampshire.
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now, you're going to hear everybody running for president saying they're going to be the candidate of change, because we do want change in this country, and I'm actually convinced that there will be change in America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's on the scene for us in New Hampshire.
Candy, John Edwards is saying that he's obviously welcoming these union endorsements, but is that enough?
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's not enough, but it surely helps.
Look, these unions provide some structure. They give some organization, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where both the UMW and the Steel Workers have a presence. They bring the people that lick the envelopes and the people -- people that knock on doors, and they bring an infusion of cash. So, that always helps, but it's clearly not definitive.
The Steel Workers backed Richard Gephardt in Iowa last time around and he didn't make it out of Iowa, so, not definitive, but certainly helpful.
BLITZER: And they're all making stops where you are, in New Hampshire, especially Clinton and Obama. Are they giving each other some jabs?
CROWLEY: They are.
You know, no names mentioned. They're not quite at that point in the campaign where they say each other's names, but it's very clear who they're talking about. Hillary Clinton has unrolled -- rolled out a new speech, in which she takes on that notion that she is too much a Washingtonian, too inside the beltway.
And Barack Obama hit back almost immediately.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: From my time in the White House and in the Senate, I have learned that you bring change by working the system established by our Constitution, not by pretending the system doesn't exist.
OBAMA: Too many, too many in Washington see politics as a game, and that's why I believe this election cannot be about who can play this game better. It has to be about who can put an end to the game- playing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: I can tell you, the Edwards campaign also somewhat gleeful, in fact, that Hillary Clinton is now sort of defending the system, as they say, noting that this is the system that brought us no universal health care, that can't find any kind of answer to global warming.
So, both the Edwards and the Obama camps, trailing Hillary Clinton nationally, are going after her again as somewhat someone who is inside the beltway that won't represent change -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, as you know, he's going to skip the Republican debate in New Hampshire Wednesday night. Instead, he's going to go to on Jay Leno's Wednesday night and formally make his announcement that he's running for president.
What are his Republican rivals saying about him?
CROWLEY: Well, I talked to Mitt Romney about this. He gave a news conference. I asked him about how he felt about Fred Thompson getting into the race. He said: Well, I'm sure it will probably be good for Jay Leno's ratings, but I would rather be here talking to the people of New Hampshire.
He didn't quite say that Fred Thompson is coming too late to this party, but he said: Look, I have been to 300 events in Iowa. We have already had five debates.
So, it was very clear, not that he thinks that Fred Thompson is too late, but that he certainly wants that impression out there.
BLITZER: Candy Crowley on the scene for us in Portsmouth, New Hampshire -- Candy, thanks very much.
She's going to be very busy over these coming weeks and months.
Candy and Bill Schneider, as all of our viewers know, are part of the best political team on television.
And, remember, for the latest political news any time, check out our Political Ticker. Go to CNN.com/ticker.
After months of testing the waters, Fred Thompson preparing to officially become a candidate for the Republican nomination, but there are some in Washington who say he may have a fatal flaw. We are going to talk about that in our "Strategy Session."
Also, 2008 isn't just a presidential election year. There are some key Senate seats up for grabs as well. A third of the Senate, in fact, is up for grabs. We are going to take a closer look at how those races are shaping up. We're going to tell you which party is most likely to have control of the Senate after the election next year.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: It's Labor Day, and just about all the presidential candidates are out on the campaign trail this holiday weekend.
But there's another political battle taking place, the fight for control of Congress.
Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, following all the action.
Senator Warner's announcement last week in Virginia that he's not going to seek reelection, that will shake things up.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This is, without question, a big deal for Republicans, because he just made a tough job for them even tougher.
SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: My work in service to Virginia as a senator will conclude upon the 6th of January, 2009.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Eighty-year-old Republican Senator John Warner saying he will not run for reelection next year. And, for the GOP, trying to take back the Senate, a difficult job just became more difficult.
Democrats have won three major statewide elections in Virginia this decade. And, if former Governor Mark Warner, no relation to the senator, decides to jump into this race, Democrats hope they can grab the seat away from the Republicans.
SCHNEIDER: Virginia has been a reliably Republican state since the 1960s, with an occasional Democratic breakthrough. Those breakthroughs are becoming more frequent with the growing population of the Washington suburbs.
FOREMAN: Democrats took control of the Senate in last year's elections, but they hold a razor-thin 51-49 advantage, but the numbers are working against the Republicans. They're defending 22 of the 34 seats up in next year's election. And a number of Republicans up for reelection will be fighting for their political life.
They include Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Only one Democrat up for reelection appears to be facing a major fight. That's Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
And it's not only the numbers that are stacking up against the Republicans.
SCHNEIDER: You have got an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and an overwhelming desire for change. And, in a presidential year, the president's party defines the status quo.
(END VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN: Another thing hurting the Republicans, these scandals, what the Democrats call the culture of corruption. Larry Craig's Idaho seat will stay Republican. That's likely going to happen, almost certainly going to happen.
But the undercurrent doesn't help anybody. And everyone knows the clock is ticking. This week, Wolf, we will enter the final 500 days of the George Bush presidency, and everyone is going to note it, and that's going to put extra heat on all of this.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman, watching it for us. And we are going to be watching it very closely, together with you.
Thanks very much.
Tom just mentioned this. The Democrats currently control 51 Senate seats. That's a bare, bare majority. The magic number they would certainly love to reach next year would be 60. That's the number of votes needed in the Senate to bust what is known as a filibuster, a stalling tactic used by the minority party to block legislation. You need 60 votes.
The closest the Republicans came in recent years when they controlled the Senate was the 55 seats they held in the last session of the U.S. Congress.
Up next here in our "Strategy Session," President Bush takes his message of optimism about Iraq to Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want you to tell your families the commander in chief stopped by to say hello, and he said, I'm incredibly proud to be the commander in chief of such a great group of men and women.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But will his trip to Iraq help convince members of the Congress to give his plan more time?
And Bill Clinton, is he an asset in chief or a chief liability? He's joining his wife on the campaign trail -- all that, a lot more, coming up in our "Strategy Session." Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey, they're standing by live.
We will be right back.
BLITZER: Political insiders say Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson has nearly everything it takes to be a perfect candidate, except perhaps, the critics charge, drive.
So, is there anything to the lazy-like-a-fox label? That's the cover of "Newsweek" magazine this week.
Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, the Republican strategist Terry Jeffrey.
Let's talk a little bit about the "Newsweek" cover. And I'm going to put it up on the screen. You can see it right behind us, "Lazy like a Fox." If you read the article, it was pretty favorable.
Let me start with Terry.
Does he have what it takes? Because, in the article, they compare him to Ronald Reagan. Some of his critics, though, are already comparing him to General Wesley Clark, who, a lot of viewers will remember, waited a long time to get in the presidential race in 2004, and it didn't help him.
TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, Ronald Reagan is a tough act to follow.
But, it you look at his resume, as laid out in the "Newsweek" article, Wolf, this guy has a tremendously impressive record. He worked his way through college and law school when he had two children. He became a federal prosecutor. He came to Washington and became a Watergate attorney. He became a very prominent lawyer in Washington, before he was twice elected to the United States Senate.
And, on top of that, he became a successful actor. I think you would have a hard time making a case that a guy who did all those things doesn't have some drive.
BLITZER: But, Donna, you know politics as well as anyone. Is it too late, though, for him to get into this race right now, the enormous pressure that's going to be on him?
DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's an enormous void on the Republican side. They are not happy with the list of candidates who are -- who have declared and running.
Fred Thompson has to hit the ground running. He needs a little bit more step in his pep. While he's been out there trying to raise money, trying to put together a campaign organization, all the signs, all the visible signs that you're accustomed to in a presidential campaign, you don't see yet in the Thompson campaign.
BLITZER: Some of the critics say he hasn't raised the money that he had hoped to raise. He has a little dissension on his staff.
What do you think? Is it too late for him?
JEFFREY: I think it might be, for this reason.
His real race now is against Mitt Romney. One of those guys, Thompson and Romney, is likely to be the Republican who conservatives support against Rudy Giuliani. Romney is way ahead in Iowa. He's way ahead in New Hampshire. There's a limited number of people who vote in Iowa. Maybe 125,000 will come out to that caucus in January. Romney has been working them hard. He's very well-organized. It's not clear to me that Thompson can really get on board...
BLITZER: And he has got a lot more money, including, if he wants, his own.
BRAZILE: Look, and Mike Huckabee has been drawing a lot of press attention since coming in second in the straw poll. So, I think Fred Thompson has to hit the ground running. And he's making a huge mistake by missing that debate in New Hampshire.
BLITZER: Because he's got to go on "Jay Leno" that night.
BRAZILE: Well, I understand he wants to talk to real people by going on "Jay Leno," but the voters in New Hampshire...
JEFFREY: Jay is going to -- Jay is going to really have some tough questions on the issues, I think, to Fred Thompson.
But the voters in New Hampshire will determine Fred Thompson's fate, not Jay Leno.
BLITZER: All right.
It will be interesting to see if more voters, more people in New Hampshire watch the debate, the Republican debate Wednesday night, or wind up watching Jay Leno. We will be able to check that out. And we will get back to you on that.
Let's talk about the Democratic contest right now. Let's listen to Bill Clinton. He's on the campaign trail now with his wife, Hillary Clinton, and he's speaking -- he's speaking out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She will never forget you and how you live and what your dreams and hopes are. And I know that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's an incredibly important asset, politically, with the Democratic base, maybe not necessarily down the road, but, right now, he is.
BRAZILE: Look, he's also a tremendous validator. He knows the country better than perhaps any other politician out there. He knows how to talk about her issues, her bio. He's the person right now that's saying, if you want change, vote for Hillary. You want experience, vote for Hillary.
So, I think he's doing a great job in helping her to frame the fall campaign.
BLITZER: How important is Bill Clinton, in terms of Hillary Clinton's capturing the Democratic presidential nomination?
JEFFREY: I think he's a tremendous asset to her. No other candidate has a spouse that is as much of an asset as Bill Clinton.
And bringing him out to Iowa is key, for this reason. I think the whole Democratic race now boils down to Iowa. Hillary is way ahead in national polls. She's ahead in most of the early states. She's even ahead in some of the polls in Iowa. John Edwards has put tremendous effort in there. If they can't beat her in Iowa, if she wins in Iowa, it's all over in the Democratic race.
BLITZER: But John Edwards is doing really, really well in Iowa.
BRAZILE: Well, he's picking up two important endorsements today. I mean, look, having the support of organized labor, having them going out there, meeting people, greeting people, bringing people to the polls, that's a tremendous asset for John Edwards. So, I -- the race is still, I think, wide open on the Democratic side, despite the polls.
BLITZER: Is President Bush's surprise visit today to the Al Anbar Province, Terry, in Iraq, is that going to make a difference when -- when the dust settles, the votes are tallied as far as the next step, troop withdrawal or no troop withdrawal from Iraq?
JEFFREY: Well, I think it does, Wolf. Actually, I think this is the best day the president has had on the Iraq war since the '06 election.
First of all, he got to go over there and talk with the actual political leaders, who need to move forward with reconciliation. There hasn't been movement on that front. Hopefully, he will have some real effect in the conversations he had with them.
But, politically, he was able to focus national attention today on the fact that there has been progress in Anbar. These tribal leaders are working with our military. They have really driven down al Qaeda-based violence in that province. That is a real sign of progress. And he's framed the way that Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus' presentations are going to be received next week.
BRAZILE: Well, six hours on the ground will not turn around six months of inaction by the Iraqi government.
Look, we don't need another P.R. offensive by the president or the White House. We need an objection -- objective analysis and assessment of what's happening, if the Iraqi government can meet the benchmarks that the president laid out.
JEFFREY: But -- but, politically, there's two things the Democrats have to worry about, because there is going to be some good news in the presentation we get from the ambassador and the general next week.
One is, Democrats can't look like they want failure in Iraq. They can't look like they're rooting for bad things to happen. And, in the past, sometimes, they have looked that way.
The second thing is, they can't look like they're pulling the rug out from under our troops just when we are, in fact, getting some real progress...
BRAZILE: Democrats are looking forward to the good news. But we're not going to grade it on a curve. We're -- we're looking at what Ambassador Crocker has to say, what General Petraeus, but also the nonpartisan GAO report, the NIE, so, we have...
BLITZER: Here -- here...
BRAZILE: ... lots of information to judge this surge.
BLITZER: Here is what the key, in my opinion, was about these meetings the president had. All of us like to see the president with the troops. And that's -- that's obviously very encouraging, when he actually goes and -- and meets with Marines and soldiers.
But the meeting he had with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki, and the president, Jalal Talabani, the other political leaders, did he shake them up? Did he tell them, hey, guys, you can't fool around anymore; this is do or die for your country, and, if you don't step up to the plate now, it's going to be all over?
I -- I suspect that he had some harsh words for these guys. Otherwise, it could be all over.
JEFFREY: And, well -- Wolf, and here is a real dramatic message he sent to Maliki.
Maliki is a Shia. He's a member of the Dawa Party, an Islamist party. The government there that hasn't been reconciling with the Sunnis is dominated by Shia Islamists. President Bush went to the Sunni region of the country. He met with Sunni tribal leaders. I think that, in itself, delivered a tough message to Iraqi Shia: You have to cut these deal with these guys, or else.
BLITZER: We will see, Donna, if Nouri al-Maliki does anything now, or if they -- they go back on vacation?
BRAZILE: Well, the Washington clock is ticking. And I -- I'm sure the president delivered that message.
JEFFREY: And -- and... BLITZER: They have got a limited window right now. We will see if they live up to it.
BLITZER: Donna Brazile, Terry Jeffrey, good discussion. Thanks very much.
Surprising details emerging from a brand-new book -- it says that, in 2000, Karl Rove did not think Dick Cheney would make a good running mate for the president, talks about President Bush crying in public. That's in this new book. We're going to take you inside some of the candid comments that are emerging, a little preview.
And, right now, there's concern that a snack millions of us eat, many of us have it on a daily basis, could be making us sick. Find out if you should be worried about microwave popcorn.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: For nearly 30 years, the people of Idaho put their trust in him, repeatedly electing him to Congress.
So, now that Senator Larry Craig has resigned in disgrace, it's hard for some of his constituents to deal with the scandal.
CNN's Jim Acosta is in Idaho -- Jim.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we traveled to the tiny Idaho town on the Oregon border that Senator Larry Craig calls this home. It seems half-a-world away from Washington, D.C., and the people there are fully supporting their native son.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Larry Craig's hometown of Midvale, population 176, give or take a few, is so remote, locals, in true Idaho fashion, call it small potatoes.
And, this stark and isolated section America's heartland, hearts are breaking over the downfall of a local boy done good.
SHIRLEY JOHNSTON, WIDOW OF CRAIG TEACHER: And he has worked all these years to attain what he did. And -- and to see it come crashing down is -- is -- is really sad.
Here's his senior picture here.
ACOSTA: Shirley Johnston's late husband taught Craig public speaking in high school. The graduating class of 1963 consisted of just 10 students, nine boys and one girl. Johnston says the senator never forgot his Idaho roots.
(On camera): When your late husband passed away, Larry Craig... UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Larry called and -- last year -- and to send his condolences to me and my family.
ACOSTA (voice-over): And, at Midvale's lone restaurant, the Country Coffee Cabin, lifelong friends of the senator are sticking by him.
REX TOWELL, RESIDENT OF MIDVALE, IDAHO: It's none of their business, his private life. Their business should be how he's serving in the Senate.
GERTIE SUTTON, RESIDENT OF MIDVALE, IDAHO: I feel really bad for him and his family. I feel bad for Idaho.
FERN WILLIAMS, FORMER CLASSMATE OF SENATOR LARRY CRAIG: And, for them to take him out of there and treat him like that, that's a shame.
ACOSTA (voice over): It took a while, but we did find one person who thinks justice has been served.
KEITH BOGGS, RESIDENT OF MIDVALE, IDAHO: He pled guilty to a lesser deal to get it over with. And he knows what the law is and how the law operates.
ACOSTA: But he was just passing through.
ACOSTA: It's not too difficult to conduct an informal poll of the citizens of Midvale. The town phone directory fits on a single sheet of paper. The general consensus is, Senator Larry Craig got railroaded -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jim, thanks very much -- Jim Acosta reporting.
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