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The Latest Developments in the Race for President/Lifting the Veil of Secrecy on a North Korean Nuclear Plant

Aired February 25, 2008 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Pulling aside the world's last iron curtain -- CNN's Christian Amanpour takes us to a North Korean nuclear plant, one which the West has been trying to put out of business for a long time. We're going to go there live.
And a death in midair -- after a desperate effort to save a woman's life aboard an airliner, an angry family claims that the oxygen tanks were empty.

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

They're battling as if the nomination will be decided in the days ahead. And with that new sense of urgency, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are taking on a sharper tone -- trading shots in Ohio today on the economy and foreign policy today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As president, I'm pledging to make sure that working families are my top priority. Instead of saying it's OK for Americans to lose everything if they get sick, we'll help you get back on your feet if you go bankrupt because of an illness. Instead of protecting banks and credit card companies, we'll protect your pensions. We'll limit the circumstances when retirement benefits can be cut. We'll increase the wages and benefits that workers can claim in bankruptcy court. And instead of cutting the safety net for workers while protecting golden parachutes, we'll prohibit executive bonuses during bankruptcy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage once again to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea, Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions until we have assessed, through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Three hundred and thirty-four delegates are at stake in Ohio and Texas alone next week. That's more than enough to tip the balance. Right now, balance is the name of the game. After 11 wins in a row, Barack Obama has 1,327 delegates. Hillary Clinton is right behind with 1,255 delegates. That includes the pledge delegates, as well -- as well as the so-called super-delegates. Ready or not, here they come -- none of the leading presidential contenders for the White House have any real experience running a state, a city or a major business.

Do these three senators have what it takes to run a nation?

Let's go to CNN's Jim Acosta.

He's watching the story for us.

Here's the question, Jim, how much does experience right now really matter?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Barack Obama himself questioned whether he was ready to for run for president back in 2004. Now he's fighting a two front battle on the issue of experience, with John McCain and Hillary Clinton taking shots at Obama's resume.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Flashback to 2004 -- Barack Obama had just won a landslide victory to become Illinois' next U.S. senator. At the time, he ruled out running on a national ticket in 2008, suggesting back then he lacked experience.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM NOVEMBER 8, 2006)

QUESTION: Why have you ruled that out, running nationally?

OBAMA: You know, I am a believer in knowing what you're doing when you apply for a job. And I think that if I were to seriously consider running on a national ticket, I would essentially have to start now, before having served a day in the Senate. Now, there are some people who might be comfortable doing that, but I'm not one of those people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: While Obama says some of his colleagues in the Senate eventually persuaded him to change his mind, that hasn't changed the subject of experience in the 2008 campaign, whether it's Hillary Clinton comparing Obama to President Bush, as she did today...

CLINTON: You've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security. We can't let that happen again.

ACOSTA: Or John McCain, belittling Obama's offer to meet Cuban leader, Raul Castro.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's naive to think that you can sit down and have unconditional talks with a person who is part of a government that has been a state sponsor of terrorism.

CLINTON: What we need is someone ready on day one.

ACOSTA: Both Clinton and McCain have run on variations of the theme ready on day one. Obama says he would be right on day one, noting Clinton and McCain's support for the war in Iraq. In fact, not one of the three leading contenders has executive experience -- a trait shared by every president since John Kennedy. Another way to measure the candidates is how they run their campaigns.

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: It's true that a campaign is maybe a billion dollar operation from beginning to end. If you run that operation well, it does suggest that you have some executive skills. To make the counter argument, every president who has been elected has been successful at running a campaign.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ACOSTA: To make up for his shortcomings as an executive, Kennedy surrounded himself with the best and brightest. All three senators in this race have top executives from the world's of politics and business advising their campaigns -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim.

Jim Acosta.

A good report.

Thanks very much.

So does executive experience, or the lack of it, really matter to the voters?

Let's bring in senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

How important is the whole issue of experience, at least as it's being reflected out on the ballots?

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, in my experience as a political journalist, Wolf, it's really all about getting the voters to the polls, getting them to believe in your leadership, getting them to believe in your ability to learn what you don't know. The experience argument really hasn't worked very well for Hillary Clinton. It hasn't had the salience out there that she really would have hoped as she started this campaign. Maybe that's because Barack Obama's argument that he has the judgment has trumped that. We don't know. But it's not exactly getting the voters to flock to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

BLITZER: Because in the exit polls, it often shows that they think she has more experience, but they vote for him, nevertheless.

BORGER: But they vote for him. And it's very interesting, because in a post-9/11 world, who would have thunk that, just years ago?

We would have thought that that kind of experience fighting terrorism, etc. would have mattered. Maybe they don't believe she's got it.

BLITZER: They like the fact that he's for change, which is an important factor.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: Now, her tone seemed to shift somewhat over the weekend.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: I want to play a little clip for you of what she said going after Barack Obama.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: So shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. That's what I expect from you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is this a shift in strategy?

What's going on here?

BORGER: I don't know what the strategy is. Talk about consistency, as Hillary Clinton just did, there is no consistency in her message or in her attack. And I think what you're seeing, Wolf, is a reflection of a disagreement inside the Clinton campaign. What's going on now, there are people who say steady as you go, continue making the experience argument we were just talking about. There are people who say show your softer side, we need to know if you're a human being. And then there are people who say go on the attack. That was the shame on you.

And what I think we're seeing is a candidate what hasn't really decided which tack to take. And so you see three messages, not one message. It's hard to get through with one message, much less three of them.

BLITZER: All right, Gloria, stand by.

You're going to be coming back with the best political team on television later.

Gloria Borger here.

Let's go to Jack.

He's a member of the team, as well.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Some people won't take no for an answer. Consumer activist Ralph Nader planning his fourth consecutive bid for the White House -- fifth if you count his 1992 write-in campaign. Nader says he's running as a third party candidate because he wants the chance to improve our country by fighting back against big money and the special interest groups. He thinks most people are disenchanted with both Democratic and Republican Parties because of the Iraq War and the state of our economy -- and he's right.

But they're also disenchanted with Ralph Nader, as evidenced by his own prior record in presidential runs. In addition, many Democrats still blame Nader for Al Gore's loss in 2000. Being tone dead, Nader rejects the idea that he's a spoiler candidate. He says voters won't choose pro-war John McCain.

Note to Ralph -- voters won't choose you, either. Last time out, Nader corralled a whopping 0.3 percent of the vote. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, quick to make it seem like Nader's announcement wasn't such a big deal. Clinton says it's not helpful to whoever the Democratic nominee is, but it's a free country. And Obama called Nader a singular figure in American politics, but also dismissed him, saying eight years ago Nader thought there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush.

So here's the question -- Ralph Nader says he's going to run for president again as a third party candidate.

What effect will he have on the race?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

You could make the argument, Wolf, that Ralph Nader is as much responsible for the war in Iraq as George Bush is.

And what I mean by that is this, if he hadn't been in the race in 2000, Gore would have been elected president. And it's very much an open question if we would have been fighting a $1 trillion war in a place like Iraq, like we're fighting today.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, good question.

Thanks very much.

I read about that, by the way, in my daily blog post at CNN.com.

CAFFERTY: You mean you wrote about it.

BLITZER: I wrote about it. I wrote about it, yes...

CAFFERTY: You said you wrote about it.

BLITZER: I wrote about it. I meant to say I wrote about it. And I asked the question, how much air time should we give Ralph Nader, as a marginal presidential candidate or a serious presidential candidate?

And I asked our viewers out there to weigh in on this sensitive question. CAFFERTY: I'll make a deal with you.

BLITZER: Yes?

CAFFERTY: Today is the last day you'll hear his words come out of my mouth in connection with running for the White House. But I figured if, you know, you do three questions a day on a campaign that's a year old, you start scrounging around, looking for stuff to do.

BLITZER: No, this is an important question you asked.

Jack, thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: A single photograph is causing an uproar out on the campaign trail. It shows Barack Obama dressed in Somali clothing. Just ahead, in-depth analysis of the photo, the fallout, the accusations that are flying between these two Democratic presidential campaigns.

Plus, an extraordinary look inside a North Korean nuclear facility. Our Christiane Amanpour just went inside. She's going to be joining us live from North Korea. That's coming up.

And death aboard a jumbo jet -- passengers had to ride for 45 minutes with a body on board.

Just what happened in the skies?

You're going to find out right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Clinton and Obama campaigns are hurling charges and counter-charges over a picture of Barack Obama wearing tribal clothing on a trip to Africa. It would be innocuous any other time, but in this heated campaign, guess what?

It's explosive.

Let's go to Carol Costello.

She's watching the story for us.

Is the Clinton campaign saying it is actually behind distributing this picture on the Internet?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's not exactly saying that. You know, this picture popped up on the online "Drudge Report," which attributed it to an unidentified Clinton campaign staffer. And then the story just got bigger and bigger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): The circulation of this picture is a Democratic battle royal. There's Senator Barack Obama in 2006 on a trip to Kenya dressed in Somali clothing.

OBAMA: We will change the world.

COSTELLO: No big thing -- until the implication hits you. Somali is 99 percent Muslim. It's where Osama bin Laden once hatched al Qaeda plots. The Obama camp charges Clinton's staffers are circulating the picture to intimate he is Muslim to hurt him in Ohio and Texas. They offer no evidence but call the alleged ploy, "shameful, offensive fear mongering."

Whoever is responsible, according to the political lobby Raven Group, it's an obvious attempt to "otherize" Obama.

JULIE FERNANDES, RAVEN GROUP CONSULTING: But I think the big deal is that if it -- it plays into this idea that Barack Obama may be too different, based either on the fact that he's an African-American or that he has roots in Africa.

COSTELLO: As for the Clinton camp, it's firing back via e-mail, telling the Obama camp enough. If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is offensive, they should be ashamed. Still, the Clinton camp didn't address whether they circulated the picture. They did point out Clinton herself has worn traditional clothing on her many trips around the world, as have many others -- like her husband.

This isn't the first time the Clinton camp has been accused of intimating Obama has Muslim roots. The allegation, first reported on the Internet, made its way to the national news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE BIG STORY," COURTESY OF FOX NEWS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gloves are off. Hillary Clinton reported to be already digging up the dirt on Barack Obama. The New York senator has outed Obama's madrassa past.

COSTELLO: Except none of that was true. Obama, a Christian, did attend an Indonesian school as a child, but it was not the kind that teaches fundamentalist Islam. Clinton called the charges she floated that rumor a right-wing hit job.

But right before the Iowa caucus, another e-mail was forwarded to voters, falsely claiming Obama was Muslim. And this time, a Clinton volunteer was to blame. She resigned.

Wherever these allegations are coming from, they do concern the Obama camp.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: You know, I interviewed him after the Iowa win and I said do you consider yourself to be the underdog or the frontrunner?

He said look, anybody with the name Barack Obama running for president of the United States, that person is still an underdog.

COSTELLO: And, Martin says, pictures like these only make it harder.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

COSTELLO: Now, these kinds of things circulate like mad via e- mail. In fact, they become a handy way to circulate political attacks. As one former lobbyist wrote to his former partner, e-mails can be used to help bring out the wackos, while remaining outside public scrutiny.

BLITZER: All right.

Thanks, Carol.

Carol Costello, a good report.

Many Democrats call him the spoiler -- blaming him for siphoning off enough votes to cost Al Gore the 2000 election. Now, Ralph Nader is running once again. We just heard Jack Cafferty raise the issue in his Cafferty File.

A day after launching his latest bid for the presidency, the Independent party candidate is lashing out at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "AMERICAN MORNING")

RALPH NADER (I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Address the issues, Barack. Address why you're not for single-payer health insurance, supported by a majority of American people, and, in a forthcoming poll, a majority of physicians.

Explain why you don't challenge what you know is to be tens of billions of dollars of waste, fraud and abuse in the military budget. Explain why you don't really get concrete about how you would renegotiate NAFTA and WTO, which is exporting jobs and industry to places like the communist dictatorship in China.

And, above all, explain why you don't come down hard on the economic crimes against minorities in city ghettos, who pay their loans in predatory lending, rent-to-own rackets, landlord abuses, lead contamination and asbestos.

There's an unseemly silence by you, Barack, a community organizer in poor areas in Chicago many years ago on this issue.

As John Edwards once said, little is going to change if we replace a corporate Republican with a corporate Democrat. And Hillary Clinton has been named by "Fortune" magazine as the Democrat most loved by big business. An article by Nina Easton in "Fortune" magazine last June. That ought to speak volumes.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: And I write about this whole Ralph Nader phenomenon in my daily blog post today at CNNPolitics.com. I ask you to weigh in on the question how much air time should we be giving Ralph Nader?

Stay with us. And we want to hear from you on that question, as well.

Coming up, a look inside a North Korean nuclear facility. Our own Christiane Amanpour, she's taking us inside one of the most secret sites in the most secretive country in the world.

Plus, Barack Obama coming under fire over his experience from both John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

But do voters really care?

We have two top Democratic strategists standing by.

Stick around.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In news around the world, North Korea giving CNN a very rare look inside its controversial nuclear facility, one which the U.S. has been trying to put out of business for years.

Our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, is joining us now live from Pyongyang in North Korea -- Christiane you were there. You saw it. Give us a sense.

What did you see inside this nuclear facility?

CHRISTIAN AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, an extremely rare look inside, especially for an American news organization. Well, we saw that it was shut down as per the agreement last July. What we saw is that it is being systematically dismantled. We were taken to the crucial areas that are important for nuclear reprocessing and producing the kind of plutonium for weapons-grade material.

We saw the crucial fuel rods being taken out and neutralized under six meters of now freezing water in the fuel rod pond. We saw the reprocessing plant where they extract the highly potent plutonium, for nuclear weapons. They extract that. We saw that has been shut down and dismantled.

We the parts had been taken down, many of them, wrapped in plastic and put in storage. We saw the very big and distinctive concrete cooling tower, which has been gutted and now is unusable and is just a concrete shell.

We also saw pipes that are involved in the steam to the turbines to produce electricity cut and laid on the floor.

So we have seen a systematic dismantling of the Yongbyon facility, which is shut down.

We also met American specialists there from the Department of Energy who are helping the North Koreans dismantle and shut this place down. And they confirmed that it is underway and it is proceeding.

However, we must say that it is slowing down. The North Koreans told us that they are now taking only 30 fuel rods out per day, as opposed to 80 fuel rods. And that is because, they say, the United States has not met its commitments -- the United States and the other nations at the six party nuclear negotiations. And so they say that they are committed do going ahead, but there is this hurdle that they have to go -- they have to get over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We only have 30 seconds left in the satellite window we have, Christiane.

What about the New York Philharmonic?

They're going to be performing in Pyongyang tomorrow, is that right?

AMANPOUR: That's exactly right, Wolf. They're coming. It's an unprecedented cultural event. It's the first time this many Americans have been in Pyongyang since the end of the war. The North Koreans here feel that America is still at war with them. So this is a vital cultural window supported by the U.S. government, the U.S. administration, to show North Korea that the U.S. bears no hostility to its people.

Now, some in the United States have said this could give a propaganda coup to the leader here, Kim Jung Il. But the U.S. administration feels that it's important to do this, it's an important ice-breaking measure, if you like, as they continue their vital nuclear negotiations.

And the North Koreans are really pulling out the stops for the Philharmonic. They've lit up parts of the city, which is usually under rolling blackout. There's very little electricity here, which is why the North Koreans so desperately want those one million tons of heavy fuel oil that the U.S. has promised. They have put on banquets. They're putting on sort of friendship exchanges. And they're promising to broadcast the concert live to the North Koreans later this evening our time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour at this historic visit over there in Pyongyang.

We'll check in with you tomorrow, as well, Christiane.

Thanks very much for that report.

The New York Philharmonic, as Christiane just noted, is making this the ground-breaking tour to North Korea. But the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, is not so sure their performance will break down any barriers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: The largest existing gulag in the world is in North Korea. This is one of the most despotic, Orwellian regimes on Earth -- probably the most. I'm glad to see that the Philharmonic is going to perform in North Korea. I would like to see the North Korean people be able to have a radio they can listen to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton on the attack, using some very sharp words against Barack Obama. And Obama is playing rough, as well. Coming up, we'll ask supporters from both campaigns about the strategy and whether it really works with voters.

Plus, Barack Obama meets privately with Jewish leaders in Ohio. The questions they had and where Obama stands on some of the key issues they care about most.

And a sick woman, a cry for oxygen and a dispute over what really happened on board Flight 896 when a passenger ends up dead.

We'll explain that and a lot more coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a deal about to be announced with China that could provide new clues about the fate of U.S. servicemen missing from the Korean War. The Beijing government will share sensitive war records with Washington for the first time. They say look for an announcement formally coming out Friday.

Also, the Pentagon now says its strike on that triple satellite was a bulls eye, making a direct hit on the craft's fuel tank and destroying the toxic chemicals inside.

And YouTube blocked in Pakistan -- the government there has cut access to the popular video sharing Web site, saying some of the content offends Islam. An official says if the items are deleted, access may -- may be restored.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senator Barack Obama has been very busy courting a key Democratic Party constituency but do Jewish voters have any doubts about where he stands on issues especially important to them?

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching the story for us.

How is Barack Obama faring in the American Jewish community based on everything we're hearing and seeing, Mary? MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, judging by answers to questions posed to him by a group of Jewish leaders yesterday, there are some concerns. And Obama told the crowd he was grateful to have a chance to clarify them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: While out on the Ohio campaign trail, there was a meeting Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama didn't hold in front of cameras. Obama met with 100 Jewish community leaders. A transcript released by the campaign shows he fielded a range of questions from those about his religion to his position that he is open to meetings with Iran while still denouncing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the holocaust.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have said I would engage in direct diplomatic talks with Iran instead of the saber rattling and the beating of the war drum that you've been seeing out of the Bush administration.

SNOW: Obama also plays down support from former Carter adviser who has been critical of Israel. Obama says he joined him to introduce a speech on Iraq, but is not a key adviser, and says they don't share the same view on Israel. But one Israeli journalist says the there's some skepticism surrounding Barack Obama.

SAMUEL ROSNER, HAARETZ CORRESPONDENT: The fact that Barack Obama consulted with such people raised some concern among pro-Israel mostly hawkish supporters.

SNOW: The National Jewish Democratic Council, a Democratic group that keeps tabs on candidates and their positions on Israel, says Obama's record is not much different than his rivals.

IRA FORMAN, NATL. JEWISH DEMOCRATIC COUNCIL: McCain, Clinton, and Obama strong pro-Israel records. And frankly, though we're a Democratic organization, if we have a Democratic candidate who was not so, we are obligated to say so. And that's just not the case.

SNOW: When in Ohio, Obama also addressed personal questions, debunking rumors he's a Muslim. He responded to concerns raised about his church pastor acknowledging he's sometimes controversial. Obama said his pastor does not have a close relationship with nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who's made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. Obama says he consistently denounces Farrakhan but on Sunday, the nation of Islam leader told a crowd that Obama is the hope of the world.

LOUIS FARRAKHAN, NATION OF ISLAM LEADER: Obama does not represent the politics of yesterday.

SNOW: Obama's camp says Obama didn't solicit Farrakhan's support.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SNOW: Obama also told Jewish leaders yesterday in response to questions some raised by e-mails that he has never heard anything to suggest anti-Semitism on the part of his pastor. Wolf?

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thank you very much for that report.

Some American families who lost their loved ones in terror attacks say the U.S. government may block lawsuits worth hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the Palestinian authority.

Let's bring in our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee. She's watching the story for us.

Zain, what's going on?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is difficult legal and political territory. U.S. victims of terrorism are basically worried that they could lose out to the U.S. government's goal of working with the Palestinian authority on mideast peace.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LESLYE KNOX, WIFE OF TERROR VICTIM: Is my government -- I'm a U.S. citizen -- are they backing me?

VERJEE: Leslye Knox's husband was killed in a terrorist attack on this party in Hadera, Israel in 2002. Palestinian militants claimed responsibility. Now she's struggling with her son, Jordan, and five other children.

KNOX: Prior to him being killed, I never went through the financial distress that I'm going through now. I've been evicted. You can't imagine what it's like to have your water turned off with six kids in the house.

VERJEE: Leslye and her family filed a lawsuit in the U.S. against the Palestinian authority. U.S. courts awarded them and other American families hundreds of millions of dollars. So far they've received no money. And now the federal government may intervene in the case to try to prevent a payout.

KATHERINE BAKER, MOTHER OF TERROR VICTIM: I feel that the United States has betrayed me, has betrayed my family, has certainly betrayed my son and his memory.

VERJEE: Katherine Baker's son Benjamin was killed in 2002 bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Israel blamed the attack on Palestinian militants. She's also sued in U.S. courts, but fears action by the U.S. government could halt her lawsuit.

BAKER: My son was murdered by terrorists. And the United States government should not send a message that it's OK to murder Americans.

VERJEE: Palestinian officials say they have no connection to past terrorist attacks. They want the State Department's help saying, "The lawsuits are politically and ideologically motivated to drive the Palestinian authority into bankruptcy."

Cases like this put the U.S. government in the middle caught between families of American terror victims and a Palestinian cause it's supporting with time and billions of dollars.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: We are absolutely committed to defending the rights of our citizens. We are also fully committed to suing our national interest.

VERJEE: Leslye, Kathrine, and other families suing Palestinians are lobbying members of Congress asking them to stand by their commitment to fighting terror.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: A judge's deadline for the U.S. government to get involved in the cases runs out on Friday. Wolf?

BLITZER: You'll keep us informed, Zain.

VERJEE: Yes.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Zain Verjee back here in Washington.

Hillary Clinton continues to hammer Barack Obama about experience. But is that an issue really important to voters? We're going to get answers from both sides of this Democratic presidential contest.

Also, John McCain talks about the one thing that could make him lose the presidential election in his words. You're going to hear what he has to say out on the campaign trail today. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

His rivals, both Democrat and Republican, are hammering away at Barack Obama on his experience. So far, though, it's failed to slow his momentum. So do the voters really care about this specific issue, the issue of experience? We're taking a closer look right now to this and other matters, and we have two Democratic strategists standing by to join us to talk about that live right now. In New York is Lisa Caputo. She's a Clinton supporter. Here in Washington Jamal Simmons. He's backing Barack Obama.

Guys, thank you very much for coming in.

On all the exit polls, virtually, Lisa, Hillary Clinton does much better among Democratic voters when it comes to the issue of experience but then she winds up losing that specific primary, at least the most recent eleven primaries. Why isn't this issue of experience resonating? LISA CAPUTO, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well you know, Wolf, I think the issue of experience resonates when it's connected to change and I think that's what you saw her do today in Washington when she unveiled her foreign policy speech talking about the different components of her plan, with the 60 day troop withdrawal out of Iraq, the end of cowboy diplomacy, trying to draw a distinction between her readiness and her depth of substance on foreign policy as opposed to Senator Obama's.

I would also point out that she is, if you look, they are two different polls out today. She's in one poll eight points up in Ohio and eleven points up in another poll in Ohio. And they're running neck and neck in Texas so something is resonating.

BLITZER: Well, there's obviously a long time to go between now and March 4th when the real poll will go into effect.

What do you think, Jamal, why isn't this issue of experience, and we heard in a piece earlier that Barack Obama himself acknowledged he may not back in 2004, have the experience needed to be president of the United States. Who do you think that's not resonating?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well Wolf, I was sort of laughing a second ago because Lisa is talking about a poll that has Hillary Clinton up by eight points up in Ohio when Hillary Clinton was up by 20 points in Ohio two weeks ago in the same poll. So the direction of the poll isn't very helpful for the Clinton campaign.

I think you don't win presidential contests based upon the experience. If that were the case, we would be finishing the second administration of Al Gore or you know George H. W. Bush would have beaten Bill Clinton.

You have to have enough experience and I think the American public, at least on the Democratic side, have decided that Barack Obama has enough experience.

The real question is trust. The question is trust and judgment. And I think this is where the American people have come down on the side of Barack Obama. And it's the reason why he's ahead in all these states and ahead in delegates.

BLITZER: You want to respond to that, Lisa?

CAPUTO: All I would say is on the issue of trust, you know, I think that's to be determined as to whether or not people trust Barack Obama. There's no question they see him as a force for change, but does he have the depth of experience to affect change? And a lot of Clinton campaign supporters would argue, no, he does not. That's why you see Senator Clinton sticking to the message of having the experience to affect change.

BLITZER: What did you think of that picture circulating on the internet, Jamal, of Barack Obama wearing a traditional African Muslim outfit, if you will, the garb and the accusation that the Clinton campaign was putting it out there. SIMMONS: Well there is an allegation on behalf of a web site that the Clinton campaign put it out there. The Clinton campaign has not denied putting it out there.

BLITZER: Apparently right now they're flatly denying it, at least Howard Wilson is saying that on a conference call.

SIMMONS: OK. Well, that's good to hear because I think that that's something that would have been quite disturbing if they did not deny it.

But as to the substance of the picture, it's something that all diplomats, senators, presidents, first ladies do when they travel abroad. Clearly somebody is looking to try to paint Senator Obama as something which he is not. He's a Christian man. He has been for more than 20 years a member of the same Methodist church in Chicago. So I think that's something that it's just another one of these old politics attack that people are nervous about Barack Obama bringing real change to Washington.

BLITZER: All right. Lisa, what do you think?

CAPUTO: Well, I mean I think that the campaign has put out a statement. I think, you know, I hope that's the end of it. As Jamal said, and he rightly points out, you know presidents, first ladies, senators, they aim to be good visitors, and they tend to done the traditional garb. This is not divisive by any stretch.

But, Wolf, I do want to make one last point with regard to the trust question. I think it's important to point out that Senator Obama was quick to point out that he was opposed to outside spending by 527s. Yet we see coming into March 4th outside expenditures by some of the union putting up ads in favor of Senator Barack Obama. So you can't have it both ways.

BLITZER: For our viewers who aren't familiar with 527s, Jamal, these are these outside groups, unaffiliated with the campaign, getting no direction from the campaign but going in clearly expressing their views. You want to respond to what Lisa just said?

SIMMONS: Sure. There's a difference between 527s and labor unions. Just like Senator Clinton had the teachers unions coming in support of her in earlier contests. Now the SCIU is coming in with support of Barack Obama. That's very different than the 527s that he spoke out about.

BLITZER: Are you worried Lisa and Jamal very quickly about Ralph Nader becoming a presidential candidate once again?

CAPUTO: No. What I would say is I think we all have to remember unfortunately he took votes away from Al Gore back in 2000 and look where we ended up. And a lot of Democrats like to point out that he's a spoiler. But, you know, I'm certainly not concerned about it.

I think what he's aiming to do is get some of his positions into the Democratic platform. My hope would be he wouldn't take votes away from a Democratic candidate.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Jamal.

SIMMONS: Well, I agree with Lisa. I think Ralph Nader is a troublesome candidacy. I still have the scars from the 2000 recount in Florida. But I think this time Democrats won't be fooled.

BLITZER: Jamal Simmons, Lisa Caputo, thanks for coming in, guys.

CAPUTO: Thank you.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: A death in midair, a desperate attempt fails to save a woman's life aboard an airliner. Now her angry family claims that the oxygen tanks were empty.

And John McCain says the Democratic candidates were wrong on Iraq and he was right. Is he betting the presidency on that issue?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carine Desir died on a flight from Haiti to New York. All sides agree on that but there's huge disagreement between the airline and the victim's cousin over how the drama actually played out.

Let's go to CNN's Deborah Feyerick. She's watching this story us.

All right. Deb, what do we know? What happened?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, flight attendants are required by law to check oxygen tanks before the plane takes off and the reason is simple. Lots of passengers, especially those with medical conditions, often require oxygen. So why is the victim's family saying that process failed?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: Gasping for air, Carine Desir knew she was in serious trouble.

ANTONIO OLIVER, VICTIM'S COUSIN: My darling, please don't let me die. Go ask for oxygen. Please, baby. I love you. Don't let me die. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. Please, please. I start yelling. Somebody help me.

FEYERICK: Her cousin, Antonio Oliver, tells CNN affiliate WABC he begged an American Airlines attendant twice to bring oxygen.

OLIVER: Please sir. Bring me some oxygen for her. He said it's impossible.

FEYERICK: It's unclear how much time elapsed. But soon after American Airlines says the captain asked passengers for help. Three doctors and four medical personnel on board tried saving the Brooklyn resident. Her cousin describes it this way.

OLIVER: When they open the oxygen tank there's nothing in the tank.

FEYERICK: Desir's cousin says a second oxygen canister also failed, as did an automatic defibrillator.

OLIVER: It wasn't working.

FEYERICK: How do you know?

OLIVER: Because the doctor said nothing is working in the plane. I can't believe.

FEYERICK: One of the doctors through a lawyer says he can't confirm much oxygen was in the canister. While an American Airlines spokesman acknowledges they're investing while the defibrillator did now administer a shock as it should have, the airline says, "We stand behind the actions and training of our crew and the functionality of the on board medical equipment."

JUSTIN GREEN, AVIATION ATTORNEY: Flight attendants are supposed to respond to the emergency in a timely and efficient way. If a flight attendant does not, the airline may be liable for whatever happens to the passenger.

FEYERICK: The passengers performed CPR for 45 minutes as the captain prepared to divert to Miami. But after Ms. Desir breathed her last, she was laid out in the first class aisle, and the captain continued to the flight's destination New York. There the medical examiner said Ms. Desir died of natural causes due to diabetes and heart disease.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: And the Federal Aviation Administration is examining all of the incidents surrounding this death. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. What a tragedy. Deb Feyerick, thanks very much.

It's the pilot's decision when and where to land the plane in a medical emergency. It's usually made in consultation with a doctor either on the ground or on board if there happens to be one. Weather and air traffic also factor into the decision. The most common mid air emergencies include heart problems, loss of consciousness, seizures and breathing problems.

Let's go back to Jack. He's got the Cafferty File. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know I'm not a lawyer but I may enroll in law school just to take a shot at the contingency fee on this one.

BLITZER: Could make money on this one.

CAFFERTY: They're going to own the airline ifs the allegations are true.

Question this hour, Ralph Nader says he's going to run for president again. This will be the sixth time as a third-party candidate. What affect will he have on the raise?

Bob in Pittsburgh, "I hope that as I age I don't make the same mistake Ralph Nader is making. It's always better to go out at the top of your game (a long time ago for Nader), than to struggle out onto the playing field and make everyone cringe. Ralph once did consumers a great service. He's now doing his country a great disservice."

Jeff in North Carolina, "Why is he coming in at this particular time? Why not earlier? Who is he really working for?"

Larry in Georgetown, Texas, "If Nader believes the American people are disenchanted over Iraq, maybe he should try this on for size and sleep well at night. He is responsible for all of the American soldiers and all of the innocent people killed in Iraq. In the words of Ron Paul, 'Just think about it.' If he had not run in 2000, we would not be in Iraq today. Maybe Osama would have been captured and our economy would not be in the pit that it's in today."

Chris writes, "Nader, this guy is like that fly that keeps landing on your potato salad at the picnic. He just doesn't take a hint, even when he's nearly squashed. As an independent, I was hoping for an entry, it just wasn't Nader. Bloomberg would be nice. Lou Dobbs, another fine choice. Heck, I'd even like to see Gore run as an independent, just not that pain in the ass Nader."

D. writes, "Jack, I hope Mr. Nader shakes up this race until they all foam. These candidates were not chosen by many of us and we don't believe in their positions on many issues. We need a third party candidate and right now Ralph Nader is all we have. Go Ralph."

And Sean writes, "Jack, his effect? He'll waste his supporters' hard earned money on a campaign that is simply designed to boost his gigantic ego. He'll get nowhere, again."

Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you Jack. See you in a few moments; Jack Cafferty with the Cafferty file.

The hot issues in hard hit Ohio, trade and employment. Lou Dobbs standing by to weigh in on NAFTA and the candidates. He's going to be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll be right back.

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