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THE SITUATION ROOM

Buying Time in Iraq: Presidential Address Tonight; Interview With Senator Ben Nelson

Aired September 13, 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, we are following a developing story. Miami police officers shot. One is dead. And now a massive manhunt for an armed suspect.
And President Bush prepares to brace the nation for the long term in Iraq. But will limited troop reductions buy him more time with a nation that is weary of war?

We are counting down to his primetime address tonight.

And top Democrats are standing by to dismiss the president's words as hollow and his plan as nothing new. But can they come up with an alternative Republicans will buy?

I'll talk with Senate Democrat Ben Nelson, who is about to head off to Iraq.

And will one Warner replace another in Virginia? The Republican incumbent is going. The Democratic former governor now is running. And this Senate race is expected to be a barn burner.

Wolf Blitzer is off this hour.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, President Bush will try again to cut through Americans' anger and pessimism about Iraq. It is a challenge more daunting than ever after four and a half years of war with members of his own party in revolt and with Democrats angling to win back the White House next year.

And this isn't likely to help the president make his case. A prominent Sunni sheikh who revolted against al Qaeda was assassinated today, just 10 days after he met with Mr. Bush in Anbar province. The White House says it believes Al Qaeda in Iraq is to blame.

Well, we've got correspondents standing by here in Washington. Joe Johns is on Capitol Hill. Ed henry is at the White House.

First, we go to CNN's John Roberts.

John, you were at a luncheon at the White House today. Obviously, there is a lot on the president's plate.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: There is, yes. And not just his lunch either. We sat down with the president and the vice president and some senior aides for about an hour and a half, giving us some perspective on the speech that we are going on hear tonight.

First, there's really, Suzanne, two headlines to come out of tonight's speech. One is that he's going to accept the recommendations from General Petraeus to draw down 30,000 troops. This is the troops that made up the so-called surge by next July.

Twenty-two hundred marines will be the first to go. That will begin almost immediately, followed by 5,700 more troops by mid- December. Probably by Christmas time, they will be out. And then the rest will be drawn down over the course of the next six months.

The second headline here, and this is a very important one, is that the president will indicate in his speech tonight that America's military engagement in Iraq will not end with his presidency. In fact, he will use language similar to this. He will say something to the effect of Iraqi governmental officials have actually asked the United States for discussions about entering into a long-term -- long term, stressing -- strategic relationship with the United States that would see the presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil for some time to come.

Now, the president is not thinking about permanent bases there. Maybe forward-operating bases. But certainly he's also thinking about the South Korean model...

MALVEAUX: Sure.

ROBERTS: ... where there have been tens of thousands of U.S. troops on South Korean soil since the Korean War -- well, it didn't end because the war is actually not over, but since the suspension or hostilities in the mid 1950s. So U.S. forces could be there not only for the next few years, but for the next few decades.

The big question is, how is that going to go over with his critics on Capitol Hill?

MALVEAUX: Sure.

ROBERTS: You know that there were a lot of queasy Republicans who were thinking about maybe going over to the Democratic side earlier. It looks like perhaps he stemmed the bleeding on that front. But what are the Democrats going to say about a prolonged, prolonged engagement in Iraq?

The president, while he says he wants cooperation from Congress, is also defiant and will be so in tonight's speech. It was indicated to us today that the president does not like Congress meddling in military affairs or telling him what to do.

MALVEAUX: And he said that very clear, and we saw these days of controversial testimony, really, tense testimony by his top general. He's often talked about as General Petraeus, he's the one who I'm going to listen to, the commander on the ground here. What did he make of the hearings and all of those attacks that were against his commander?

ROBERTS: Let me characterize it for you this way without directly quoting the president. It is clear that he is very hot about this.

Words that were kicked around the table in terms of that MoveOn.org ad that appeared in "The New York Times," "despicable" was a word that I heard. The president's thinking is the that General Petraeus is not a politician. President Bush is a politician. He's not the commander in chief.

MALVEAUX: Right.

ROBERTS: The president is the commander in chief. And that if anybody should be taking heat for the situation in Iraq, it's President Bush. It's not General Petraeus. I mean, it's clear that he was extremely ticked off, particularly by that ad.

MALVEAUX: And John, we saw that Sunni sheikh was assassinated. That is a big, big blow to this White House, that has used Anbar province as the example, now the model for success.

ROBERTS: And the president tonight believes that that success in Anbar can be translated across the country, though there are so many critics and so many other observers who say that's just not possible, particularly on the Shiite side of things, because that would, in essence, be the same as the Mehdi army or the Badr Brigade...

MALVEAUX: Sure.

ROBERTS: ... suddenly siding with U.S. forces. But the President believes that rather than being a blow against society of the Sunni tribe leaders working together with the U.S. military, this will actually strengthen their resolve against al Qaeda. His belief, not necessarily saying that that's going to happen. But he thinks that they will look at this and they'll say we are sick and tired of this violence, let's really band together against al Qaeda.

It remains to be seen.

MALVEAUX: All right. Well, John, thank you so much for your insight. Appreciate it.

And as we know, John Roberts is the host of "AMERICAN MORNING," every weekday, 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.

And now to the White House, where the president has been through this drill of speaking about Iraq to the nation numerous times before. We bring in our own White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

You have really, Ed, been looking at the evolution of these speeches here. And a lot of times we hear a very different message coming from a strategy that's often changing for the president to convince the American people to get on his side. What do we expect?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Suzanne. We've heard the president has now been through 30 drafts of this speech which will be delivered from his desk in the Oval Office. He has done some run-throughs in the family theater. (INAUDIBLE) prologue, we can expect an upbeat assessment from Mr. Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice over): One theme guaranteed to be in the president's eighth primetime speech on Iraq since the invasion is the thread that's run through the previous seven -- relentless optimism.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I assure you this will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory.

HENRY: Optimism came easy when the U.S. appeared to be winning.

BUSH: Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will leave. And we will leave behind a free Iraq.

HENRY: But the optimism continued. Even as fortunes turned.

BUSH: There are difficult days ahead. And the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic. Yet our coalition is strong. Our efforts are focused and unrelenting. And no power of the enemy will stop Iraq's progress.

HENRY: Author Robert Draper, who had unprecedented access to the president, says Mr. Bush knows his legacy is linked to Iraq.

ROBERT DRAPER, AUTHOR, "DEAD CERTAIN": I think he's determined to see the glass is half full. I think we can predict that at no point will the president ever say, you k now, things are just not working.

HENRY: So promises of progress have continued. Even as the insurgency gained.

BUSH: This proves that the war is difficult. It doesn't mean that we are losing. Behind the images of chaos that terrorists create for the cameras, we are making steady gains with a clear objective and view.

HENRY: The president feels pessimism will embolden the enemy.

BUSH: We can and we will prevail.

HENRY: Though he does acknowledge the endless confidence can hurt his credibility.

DRAPER: He has this kind of compulsive optimism to him, and he realizes that it's created conditions for a credibility gap. He told me, "Right now David Petraeus is going to have to sell people on this war and on the surge because people don't believe me and they don't listen to me anymore."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: That's one of the reasons, of course, that we've seen General Petraeus so front and center. In fact, I've talked to some very senior Republican strategists around town who are scratching their heads, wondering why the president is giving this big speech.

They say they think General Petraeus did such a good job on the Hill with his testimony that the president really should stay out of the way in this case and let that testimony stand. But obviously, the White House feels differently.

They think there is a big difference from January to now, that in January the president had to do a lot of explaining, was in deep political trouble. They feel that there has been some modest success, and now the president can try to gain on that -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Ed, thank you so much. And we know it's all about legacy as well. So thanks again.

Ed Henry.

And Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island will deliver the Democrats' response to President Bush tonight. Reed brings a good deal of military and political experience to this debate. He's a West Point graduate who also taught there. And he's a former Army Ranger and paratrooper. Elected to the Senate in 1996, Reed is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. A vocal critic of the war, Reed has been visited Iraq 10 times.

CNN's Joe Johns is on Capitol Hill for us.

Joe, what do we expect to hear from Reed tonight?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, well, we got a photo-op of Senator Jack Reed just a little while ago. You would think that everything he's going to say is a closely-guarded secret, but the truth is he's been on the record, at least the outlines of his position.

He does see inconsistency in going back to pre-surge levels but keeping the mission the same for the troops in Iraq. And if you put that together with what some other Democrats have said, they see the need for a change in the mission so that you reduce troops to the levels where there are enough there to protect the diplomats, to train the Iraqis, for example.

That's what they would like to see. So, how far Jack Reed is going to go simply is a question -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And Joe, what do we expect in light of the speech -- coming out of his speech for the Democrats to follow up in the days ahead?

JOHNS: Well, the game right now is about the defense authorization bill. That is scheduled to hit the Senate floor next week.

As you know, you need 60 votes pretty much to do anything in the United States Senate. Democrats don't have enough. They need some help from Republicans. So the pressure is on the small group of Republican moderates -- what, nine to about a dozen Republican moderates. Some whom have expressed some concerns about what's going on in Iraq and also expressed concerns about going back to pre-surge levels which some say, again, is just about the status quo.

So the pressure is on them -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And Joe, we know you'll be following that.

Thanks again.

Joe Johns.

Senator Jack Reed will be a guest tonight during our special coverage of the president's Iraq address to nation. It begins right here with a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Wolf Blitzer will be here, along with the best political team on television.

And time now for "The Cafferty File". Jack Cafferty now joining us from New York.

Jack, what are you looking at?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Suzanne, coming on the heels of that fatal bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the Senate has approved a transportation and housing bill aimed at making necessary and long past due repairs to things like our roads and bridges. Guess what else the bill includes? Two billion dollars for pet projects, including things like a North Dakota peace garden, a Montana baseball stadium, and a Las Vegas history museum.

It's called pork. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.

According to "USA Today," total spending on transportation earmarks, pork, next year expected to be about $8 billion. A report by the department's inspector general found that in fiscal year 2006, there were more than 8,000 earmarks totaling $8.5 billion. That accounted for more than 13 percent of the Transportation Department's overall spending plan.

Republican Senator Tom Coburn, who's a frequent critic of pork, says, "No one in America seriously believes that bike paths, peace gardens and baseball stadiums are more important national priorities than bridge and road repairs."

Some lawmakers like Coburn try to strip bills of earmarks, but they're usually unsuccessful thanks to the ongoing efforts of their colleagues on both side of the aisle.

So here's the question: How can we improve our infrastructure if transportation bills include $8 billion in pork spending? E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile.

Even the deterioration of the national infrastructure to the point where it causes a fatal accident in the form of a bridge collapsing into a river outside Minneapolis will not deter these mutants from grabbing from the trough of public moneys for their own little pet projects. And we keep re-electing them. That's the real mystery -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, we'll see if the viewers agree with you, Jack.

Thanks so much.

And Democrats are ready to pounce on the president's speech tonight. Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska will offer a parting shot before he travels to Iraq himself. The Nebraska Democrat is standing by to join us.

And heading into the president's address, are Americans any more approving of Mr. Bush? We'll have brand-new poll numbers for you.

And here's a bright hope for Democrats eager to widen the majority in the Senate. Virginia now an even hotter battleground in 2008.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: A key centrist in the Iraq debate is Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a member of the Armed Services Committee. He opposed the troop surge and co-sponsored legislation to limit the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Now, he is going there this weekend, and Senator Ben Nelson joining me from Capitol Hill.

Thank you so much. I know you have a very, very busy schedule in the days ahead.

First, this is a bipartisan group that is going to Iraq. What do you hope to learn or accomplish from this trip?

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: Well, this is -- Max Backus is leading this, and we're doing a bipartisan trip to try to find out what is happening with the Maliki government. Maliki himself is not taking any meetings with any congressional delegations on -- in Iraq. He's becoming more insular in that regard. I think it's a mistake on his part. But there's some suggestion that he is reaching out to the Sunnis and moving away from his winner take all attitude that he has exhibited to date.

So I'm going to find out what's going on. I also hope to talk to President Talabani to get his take on what's happening with that government, what its future truly is given the fact that they've had the breathing room established by the -- by the surge in Baghdad.

MALVEAUX: Well, Senator, in light of what President Bush has said in the past, he has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki. He believes that he is at least trying to do his best about reconciliation.

What do you need to hear from the president tonight to convince you that his course is the right one?

NELSON: Well, I think the president has a tall order tonight to convince the American people that the Maliki government is delivering on the political, diplomatic and the economic benchmarks. All the report cards that have been addressed by the GAO, by the Jones Commission, and even by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have been a very, very dim view -- a dim view of what the al-Maliki government has been able to do. I think that's -- that's a tall order to say things are going well enough to be able to continue the surge.

MALVEAUX: So if the president comes out tonight and says that he is, in fact, doing a good job, that he is at least moving forward, is that good enough, or does he have any credibility left anymore in your eyes?

NELSON: That will take a lot of credibility to be able to say that the al-Maliki government is moving forward and doing a good enough job. As a matter of fact, I think most of the criticism has been rather harsh against Prime Minister Maliki.

That's why I want to find out from President Talabani and others on the ground there what truly is happening and how can we move away from thinking that we can do everything militarily so that we can begin to solve the problems in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, diplomatically, as well as politically and economically.

MALVEAUX: But Senator, you've put an interesting proposal on the table. You have said that within six months or so, you would like for the Iraqi security to take over the country, their country there, their troops. And at the same time, allow U.S. soldiers to perhaps patrol the borders, for it to be a different kind of mission.

But we heard from General Jones this week, who really didn't give glowing remarks to Iraqi security or the troops at all. He didn't think that that would be able to happen for quite some time.

NELSON: Well, I think what we are really saying is that it's time that the government step up, the Iraqi government step up and take that responsibility. We can begin to phase down and transition the mission out of Baghdad so that the Iraqis can put in their top two layers of military -- those who are combat ready on their own and those who are combat ready with our help -- and move those into Baghdad.

That will put us in a position to do two things. One is counterterrorism all over Iraq to the -- Al Qaeda in Iraq in the north, and the militias in the south. And set in place what I think is the most important thing we need to do almost immediately, is establish the force that's going to be there. In other words, the ongoing residual force to take care of the borders, to take care of protecting our assets and to help their government and their military even expand their role and their capabilities.

MALVEAUX: Senator Nelson, we'll have to leave it there but we wish you a very safe journey, a safe trip. And please report back to us what you learn after your trip to Iraq.

NELSON: I will be looking forward to talking to you. Thanks. Have a great weekend.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you. You too.

NELSON: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: And on this big day for the Iraq debate, is an ad slamming the war commander tying the Democrats' hands? James Carville and Leslie Sanchez are standing by for our "Strategy Session".

And Hillary Clinton's brother puts a legal headache behind him.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MALVEAUX: Now we know what you are thinking. Up next, our brand-new poll numbers give the lowdown on what the country and especially Republicans and Independents think about President Bush.

Also, tonight's potential dilemmas for the Democrats and Republicans who think they can do a better job.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Happening now, disturbing new information about what provoked an apparent Israeli raid inside Syria. Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr looks into the North Koreans' connection.

And for the first time, we hear the voice of the accused mastermind behind 9/11 and other terrorist atrocities.

And two soldiers who publicly criticized U.S. policy in Iraq becomes two of the war's latest victims. The impact on their families and on Congress.

Wolf Blitzer is off this hour.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush is putting the finishing touches on his big Iraq speech tonight, but will the American people listen to what he has to say with an open mind?

Our Mary Snow joining us now. Mary, you have been looking at brand-new poll numbers. And what do we think the American people are going to respond to the president tonight?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, where the president stands in the polls today could determine how successful his Iraq war speech is tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good evening. Tonight, in Iraq, the armed forces of the United States...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW (voice-over): President Bush addressing the nation in prime time. Our new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that 36 percent of Americans support the job he's doing.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: This is the lowest approval rating for Bush on the eve of a prime-time address in Iraq.

SNOW: The president's approval is unchanged from our previous survey taken last month.

HOLLAND: Bush still gets high marks from Republicans. But only a third of independents approve of how he's handling his job and only one in 10 Democrats feel that way.

SNOW: Our new poll also finds that only about a third of the country believes that the president's policies are moving the country in the right direction. About half think the Democrats in Congress have the right recipe.

BUSH: I came back from Iraq encouraged by what I saw. No question, there's still hard work to do. But my resolve is as strong as it has ever been.

SNOW: Our poll finds only four in 10 think this year's troop buildup in Iraq is succeeding. But not all the numbers are working against the president. There is a modest increase since June in support for the war and a 10-point drop since last month in the number of Americans who want all troops withdrawn from Iraq.

BUSH: I believe we are doing the right thing for the security of the country and for the peace of the world.

SNOW: And a slight majority of those we questioned agree, that it is necessary to keep troops in Iraq to prevent terrorism back home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, the president could talk tonight about congressional attempts to set a troop deadline. On that question, our polls find that Americans are basically split on that question -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Mary, thank you so much.

And whatever President Bush says about Iraq tonight, you can bet it will become red meat for the race to replace him in the White House.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

First, the Republicans in Congress on the presidential campaign, what dilemma do they face now?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it has always been conventional wisdom that, some time next year, election year, the Republicans will have to find some distance with George Bush. He's -- because of all those poll numbers you just saw that Mary reported on.

MALVEAUX: Sure.

CROWLEY: Now they have had General Petraeus come in and say, here's what we should do.

So, there are moderate Republicans who may or may not break with the president. And there's everybody else who has to run for their office again sort of looking down the barrel of waiting until spring to see if anything has improved or not. If it hasn't improved -- as one key congressional aide that told me today, if the situation has not improved for Republicans come spring, then what looks like a very bad year for Republicans will become even worse.

MALVEAUX: And what about the presidential candidates on the Democratic side? How are they positioning themselves in advance of the president's speech?

CROWLEY: In a word, no.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: They -- that -- the Petraeus report was a non-starter, as we should have expected.

What's interesting is that the Democrats now split down sort of two lines. You have sort of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama both talking about, well, we might have -- you know, we are going to work with Republicans. We have to do something.

And then you have Senator Dodd, Senator Biden, and, of course, John Edwards, who is doing his own strike against the president tonight. But what's interesting here is -- and I think we have a clip of it -- is John Edwards going after Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, EDWARDS CAMPAIGN AD) JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Congress must answer to the American people. Tell Congress you know the truth. They have the power to end this war and you expect them to use it. When the president asks for more money and more time, Congress needs to tell him he only gets one choice: a firm timeline for withdrawal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So, substitute -- when he says Congress must do this, substitute in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and you pretty much get John Edwards' message.

MALVEAUX: And what about Senator Obama? Did he break out in any way in the message that he gave in Iowa?

CROWLEY: Well, what is interesting is, today, he indicated that he didn't think Congress would be able to put through a timeline.

This sort of talk does not sit well with the core of the party. And, as you know, the core of the party is very anti-war. And those are the ones that vote. So, it is not the sort of remark -- even if true -- and it probably is at this point, or it looks that way at this point -- it's -- it is not a message that the core of the party takes well.

MALVEAUX: Do you think there is any plan or proposal that seems to be jumping out ahead of any of the others?

CROWLEY: I talked to a couple of people today up on the Hill, leadership aides and -- and others, who said that the -- what the Democrats are trying to do and what looks like it has the most promise at this point to bring some Republicans over is the Jim Webb proposal, which would require that troops have as much time off as they do in the Iraqi theater, which would necessarily...

MALVEAUX: Right.

CROWLEY: ... bring down the number of troops. I -- I am told today that they are nearing 60 votes on that proposal.

MALVEAUX: Well, OK. Well, we will see what happens. Candy, I know you will be watching tonight as well. So, thanks again.

And just launched today, an online only Democratic presidential debate where you choose which issues and candidates you want to hear from. It is the latest effort to engage a Web audience this election cycle.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is here.

And, Abbi, how does this all work?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Suzanne, in this one, the candidates gave their answers, and then it is up to the Web users to pick which ones they want to listen to, all on this Web site at Yahoo.com. The issues that they were asked yesterday were education, health care, and Iraq.

And, on the issue of Iraq, moderator Charlie Rose asked one question of most of the candidates about that MoveOn ad that we have all been talking about that ran this week.

Senator Edwards, for one, responded that he hadn't even seen the ad. You can also line up the responses differently, all the responses, for example, to the questions that were given by Bill Maher, who showed up as a kind of wild car questioner during this, with some entertaining results.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": ... vote for someone who can be fooled by George Bush.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: Bill Maher asking Hillary Clinton why you could vote for someone who could be fooled by President Bush? That was referring to her Iraq war vote in 2002.

Her response to that one was, it is a little bit more complicated than that.

Yahoo! says that they have reached out to the Republican candidates as well to invite them for a similar debate. They're still waiting to hear a response.

Of course, CNN and YouTube has teamed up for debates. Already, we have done a Democratic one this summer, and we are following with a Republican debate November 28 -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Fascinating. Thank you so much, Abbi.

Abbi Tatton, Candy Crowley, and Mary Snow are all part of the best political team on television.

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

And a Democrat who was thinking of the White House has just set his sights on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Coming up, why Virginians may not have change the name plates that say Senator Warner.

Plus, for the first time, we will hear the voice of the accused 9/11 mastermind.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Virginia is near the top of every political junky's must-watch list for next year, including ours. Not only Republican is Senator John Warner retiring, but, as of today, former Governor Mark Warner, that is, a popular Democrat, is in the race.

So, our Tom Foreman is looking at the prospects for Warner replacing Warner.

You have got to love this story, because it is so confusing...

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: It's like...

(CROSSTALK)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You just wished they would change names, one of these guys. We are going to call you Bob.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: But the fact is, this announcement by Virginia's former governor could make a tough task for Republicans to take back the Senate even tougher.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, WARNER CAMPAIGN AD)

MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: I have decided the way I can contribute most to getting our country back on the right track is to serve in the United States Senate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN (voice-over): Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner jumping into the race for Senate. The seat opened up after longtime Republican Senator John Warner -- no relation -- announced his retirement.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: My work and service to Virginia as a senator will conclude upon the 6th of January, 2009.

FOREMAN: Mark Warner's term as governor ended in January 2006. And the Democrat left office with highly favorable ratings.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Democrats are ecstatic about today's news. Mark Warner is not only going to be the favorite, but they have done very well in the past couple of years in some very big elections, the governor's race and Senate race. But let's not forget Virginia still is very Republican outside the Northern Virginia suburbs.

FOREMAN: There could be a bitter primary fight on the Republican side between moderate Congressman Tom Davis and former Governor Jim Gilmore, a conservative. Once again, Virginia could be in the national spotlight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), VIRGINIA: And let's give a welcome to macaca here.

(APPLAUSE)

ALLEN: Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: That was one of the most talked-about moments in last year's campaign, Senator George Allen's controversial remark to a young campaign aide working for his opponent. It was caught on camera and became a big hit on YouTube. Allen lost his seat in the pivotal Virginia race that helped Democrats win control of the U.S. Senate. They now hold a razor-thin 51-49 advantage.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: And the numbers are just working against the Republicans. They are defending 22 of the 34 seats up in next year's election. And some of those are tooth-and-nail fights. The simple truth is, if you think about it, Suzanne, not only is there this big debate of what you're going to do about the presidency and whether or not the Democrats can take that back...

MALVEAUX: Right.

FOREMAN: ... but, if they can get this edge in the Senate, then it is a runaway train. And the Republicans are really thinking about that, saying, boy, we have got a White House fight over here, a Senate fight over here. This is going to be a tough, tough year for the Republicans.

MALVEAUX: It could dramatically change the political landscape.

FOREMAN: Oh, boy, big time.

MALVEAUX: So, keep those Warners straight for us.

FOREMAN: We will see.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: OK. Thanks, Tom.

And up next in our "Strategy Session": that controversial MoveOn.org ad, a gift that keeps on giving for the GOP?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I don't think should happen in political discourse is the kind of character assassination that MoveOn.org participated in calling him "General Betray Us," that "The New York Times" gave them a discount to do, and that Hillary Clinton followed up on with these attacks on his integrity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Has the anti-Iraq war group taken the Democrats off message? Well, we have heard from the ambassador and the general.

But, tonight, we hear from President Bush and a leading Democratic war critic. But have the American voters heard enough? All that with James Carville and Leslie Sanchez -- here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Lots to talk about in our "Strategy Session" today, starting with President Bush's Iraq speech tonight.

With me, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist James Carville, and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Thank you both for being here.

I know that you are going to be watching this speech very closely.

And I guess the first thing here is that the president really has a tough sell and a tough job tonight. I want to show you this poll number that was released here. This is a CBS News/"New York Times" poll asking folks if they approve or disapprove of the way that the president is handling the Iraq war, the situation. Twenty-six percent say they approve. Seventy-one percent say they disapprove.

Clearly, the president, he doesn't have a lot of credibility when it comes to executing the war in Iraq. What does he need to say, Leslie?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: You know, I think the president is going to lay out a strategy that is enough is enough with respect to -- I do think he is going to address the MoveOn.org issue, because that's a tremendously important situation, in terms of how it is laying out support for General Petraeus and what General Petraeus was saying about the strategy that is working.

Everybody has been frustrated with the -- with the pace of the war. But I think the president is going to lay out what the -- what the ramifications are if we cut and run and surrender. I mean, there is still talk on the left -- and I see James cringing -- about appeasement and surrender. And that's something that you can't see happen in the Middle East.

MALVEAUX: But how does -- how does he convince the American people that the Maliki government is even -- even making the kind of progress that's necessary? He is going to talk about bottom-up. But he is not going to be talking about top-, own because there's very little that we see.

SANCHEZ: No, I think there were. There clearly were promises and steps and measures of success that General Petraeus was talking about.

But -- and, clearly, people are frustrated. But the president is going to have a balance, measured approach to what's happening. And I think all that you are hearing on the left -- now, you see, they're cringing over here with James -- is, basically, there's no solution. They're just offering steps to cut and run.

And I think the president is going to say, we need a balanced, reasonable approach for Iraq.

MALVEAUX: Now, James, Leslie is talking about promises. But a lot of this, when see the GAO report, NIE, they're broken promises.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Who cares? No one cares what the guy -- look, they have this whole onslaught of doing this and doing that. And you looked at five polls come out, and nothing has changed.

MALVEAUX: So, what do you mean...

CARVILLE: The country has made up its mind. They don't care what Bush says. They have heard it all before. Why believe -- why would you believe anything that this president has to say about this war? From every -- every time that he says something, it goes out, and people are now, well, I have seen this before.

That's why -- that's why you are looking at the kind of polling numbers you are.

MALVEAUX: So, you don't think that anybody is listening to him anymore?

CARVILLE: No. No.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Is there anything that he...

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Is there anything he can do in his 16 months left to change that?

CARVILLE: It doesn't seem like it. They did everything they could. They had a whole -- from Labor Day to now, they had everything, and they had General Petraeus and Bush had out, and they had this, and they had the ambassador out.

MALVEAUX: Well, if you were advising him, what would you say? If you were advising him, what would you say?

CARVILLE: I would say -- probably tell him to say less, because, when you go out, it doesn't help you, and try to manage a couple of things to do.

But no one -- they are not moving anybody.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: That's categorically wrong.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: The president spent all of August laying out the case for what would happen if we cut and run from -- from Iraq.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: I think the biggest thing that the president did was lay out the consequences it is very clear that the American public had not heard.

And the president should have done it earlier, is lay out what kind of tinderbox situation we have in the Middle East.

CARVILLE: How would he know? How would he know what would happen? He has not been right about anything in this war. Why would anyone believe him?

SANCHEZ: I think that's a really easy thing for Democrats to say.

But, again, I think there is a lot of tone here of appeasement and the politics of appeasement, which is the same type of Neville Chamberlain. You know, I'm going go down that road, because, really, what the president is saying is, this is a serious situation. We have serious enemies. And we can't just cut and run.

MALVEAUX: Leslie, do you think the strategy, the White House strategy, of using General Petraeus, putting him out in front, was successful? Because we had heard speech time after time. He said, it is the military guys. I'm going to listen to them.

And they are the ones that saw, the public face of the war.

SANCHEZ: You know, I think you have also seen from polls that General Petraeus still continues to have overwhelmingly, you know, positive support. It is unconscionable what the Democrats did and MoveOn.org, their aligned, you know, liberal organization, in terms of a character assassination on the general.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: I have no idea what -- what the Democrats did that is unconscionable.

What's unconscionable is going into a war under false pretenses and having massive incompetence in pursuing said war. That's not unconscionable. That's criminal.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: That people oppose this war or oppose this policy, that, somehow or another, they are bad Americans is ludicrous.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: And, you know, you have 65 percent of the people that think this policy is wrong.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Let's talk about MoveOn.org, because you have mentioned it several times. I want to put up the ad that was -- the full-page ad that was taken out in "The New York Times."

This was, of course, in the lead-up to the -- General Petraeus' testimony, where the liberal group put out the ad, saying "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" alleging, like, that he would really just be a shill for the White House.

This has caused a lot of controversy, and, James, in particular, for the Democrats as well...

CARVILLE: Why?

MALVEAUX: ... the Democrats as well who were not able to really come out and -- and say this guy is somebody who we don't think is playing fair, because they tried to distance themselves from MoveOn.org. They thought it was...

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: They thought it went overboard.

CARVILLE: Right. But what does MoveOn.org have to -- they're not in the Democratic Party. They're an interest group. The idea that the First Amendment doesn't apply to MoveOn.org is ludicrous.

And, by the way, General Petraeus, as they pointed out, wrote an op-ed piece. He interjected himself in the '04 election. And -- and that's what they were doing. A lot of Democrats were uncomfortable with it. But it doesn't have anything to do with the Democratic Party.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Look, Ann Coulter has said 500 times more goofy things than MoveOn.org has ever done.

MALVEAUX: OK. But the question here, James, is whether or not they are paying a political price.

CARVILLE: Who?

MALVEAUX: We heard Senator Clinton, when it came to Petraeus' testimony, she said, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of this disbelief.

Now, immediately, immediately, Rudy Giuliani followed up on that.

Let's listen to that sound bite real quick.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI: What I don't think should happen in political discourse is the kind of character assassination that MoveOn.org participated in calling him "General Betray Us," that "The New York Times" gave them a discount to do, and that Hillary Clinton followed up on with these attacks on his integrity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Is this the gift that keeps on giving for the Republicans?

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: No.

MALVEAUX: They keep hammering them on this.

CARVILLE: If it keeps on giving, why are they doing so -- Rudy Giuliani, as I understand, went to a 9/11 rally with Ann Coulter. What is he talking about? He must think people are, like, ludicrous. He looks like -- he better go check with some of his ex-wives about what he said.

SANCHEZ: OK. OK, let's be -- let's be fair.

It is ludicrous to think that MoveOn.org does not represent the fringe liberal left, the anti-war movement of the Democratic Party. It is ludicrous to think that they are not the ones in control that the Democratic candidates are trying to appease.

And, on top of that, this is a socialist radical movement that's basically trying to take down the government. I would say that.

MALVEAUX: James, I will let you respond real quick. And then we're going to have to go.

CARVILLE: You know, all of this silliness. It was a war that was pursued under false pretenses. It was pursued incompetently. And the country is through with it. And the president ought to take a nap tonight.

(CROSSTALK)

SANCHEZ: It's above the bar.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: I have got to leave it right there for you.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: But I know we will not be napping.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: We will be watching very closely and dissecting this speech.

So, thank you so much, both of you, for joining us here.

And if there is pork in the transportation bill, are America's roads and bridges at greater risk? Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mails.

Also ahead, a bloody reminder of terror and instability in Iraq, a prominent Sunni sheik assassinated. Our man in Baghdad, Michael Ware, on the killing and the finger-pointing at al Qaeda.

Plus, high alert in the Middle East and fears of a nuclear axis of evil. North Korea now reportedly pouring fuel on an explosive region.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

In Israel, Orthodox Jews perform a ritual on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Today is the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

In China, a construction worker checks out the new Shanghai World Financial Center from the 96th floor.

And, in the West Bank, a Palestinian boy reads the Koran on this first day of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calender. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk.

And, in Gaza City, another Palestinian boy celebrates, breaking his Ramadan fast with a homemade sprinkler. That's this hour's "Hot Shots" , pictures often worth 1,000 words.

And Jack is in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Jack, what are you following?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: How can we improve our infrastructure in this country, if the transportation bills are larded up with $8 billion worth of pork? Rick writes from Vermont: "It seems simple to me. We are wasting something like $3 billion a week in a hopeless foreign war. Let's spend some of that. Then we can have all the pork we want. Whose money is it, anyway?"

Jean (ph) in Houston writes: "Vote out the Democrats and the Republicans and put in someone with ethics and morals who will do what they promise. We need a third party, maybe a fourth, or a fifth. Getting an honest, non-morally corrupt congressperson may take a lot of looking."

Tom in West Hollywood: "Eight billion here, six billion there, these morons in Congress see that as chump change. But we're the chumps. At least folks like you are starting to point it out. Nothing beats watching Stevens" -- that would be Senator Ted Stevens -- "go nuts when his bridge to nowhere was going to be taken away. The bridge got funded anyway."

Chuck in Tennessee: "We will never change the pork spending or anything else until we vote the pork bellies out of office. And I mean both parties."

Dan in Massachusetts: "Simple as the flat income tax. All road and bridge funding should come from a gas tax. Pay as you go.

Charles in California: "Hey, Jack, remember that bridge to nowhere? Well, maybe we can get a bus caravan, drive Congress across that bridge, and leave them there. Who would miss them?

And Pat in California writes: "Jack, of course we can't improve our infrastructure when we're wasting $8 billion on pet projects. But have some sensitivity, chap. Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah have just started. Do you have to talk about pork?"

We invite you to join us next Wednesday, September the 19th, 8:00 Eastern time. We're going to do a one-hour special on "The Cafferty File," talking about my new book, which is called "It's Getting Ugly Out There."

You can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can send us your I- Reports. And then you can also e-mail us Jack@CNN.com. Or you can call me and I will come by your house, and we can talk.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jack, my mother wants an autographed copy. So, I promised her I would ask you, OK?

CAFFERTY: They're available at Barnes and Noble, and I would be delighted to sign them for her.

MALVEAUX: OK. Great. She will be there.

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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