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Power Outage in Florida; Chris Dodd Endorses Obama; McCain Backer Blasts Obama

Aired February 26, 2008 - 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're following the breaking news out of Florida -- a massive power outage. Three million people affected. Maybe more.
How did this happen? And could it happen anywhere?

Also this hour, John McCain's Ohio embarrassment. A supporter's rant against Barack Obama forces McCain to apologize. You're going to want to hear for yourself what was said.

Plus, campaign dropout Chris Dodd takes Barack's side instead of Hillary Clinton's. We'll tell you which Democrat felt uncomfortable along the way.

And the news media under scrutiny. The Clinton camp accusing journalists of giving Barack Obama a free pass. We're going to examine the criticism and the coverage.

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

We're going to cover all the news from the presidential campaign in a moment, but first, millions of people in Florida have no power right now hours after an automatic nuclear reactor simply shut down. They're working to try to turn the lights back on from Miami to Tampa, a lot of areas in between. But in the meantime, you can imagine the bedlam being caused by the blackout. Lots of concern.

Let's go to our national correspondent, Susan Candiotti. She's covering the story. She's on the scene.

What's the very latest, Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm in downtown Miami right now, and you are seeing a lot of traffic moving normally. It's been hit and miss in different parts of the state. But it's true that a massive power outage did hit the state of Florida about 1:00 Eastern Time this afternoon, affecting upwards of 800,000 customers. They hope to get the power back on within just a few hours.

But we are seeing some traffic lights out. On the other hand, in other parts of the state, they were affected or not affected. For example, some homes didn't notice anything. Other homes noticed just lights blinking out. Miami International Airport affected for a brief period of time before power went back on. Trying to figure out what caused it, that's what everyone's trying to do right now. Some sort of difficulty with a power grid. Some reactors automatically shut down in the Miami area when they noticed this power outage. And that is all part of the system, the way it's supposed to work.

So, right now everyone is in a wait-and-see mode to see how long it will take to get power back on and to get to the bottom of things -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Susan. We'll be checking back with you. Let's stay on top of this story.

Let's also watch what's happening in the race for the White House.

Barack Obama spent his day in Ohio hearing some good things said about himself by Senate colleague and formal rival Chris Dodd. Dodd is the first of the year's Democratic dropouts to make an endorsement, and he admits it was tough to break the news to Hillary Clinton.

Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley. She's in Cleveland watching the story for us.

I take it was a boost for Obama. It was also a disappointment for Hillary Clinton. They go way back, Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They do, absolutely. And it comes at a time when her campaign is having a hard time finding terra firma.

So obviously it is a blow to her. But more than that obviously for Obama, it is a big boost, particularly because Dodd is seen as one of the more experienced people when he was running. So with his experience he came to testify that he believes Barack Obama also has the experience to be president. And that's not all.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice over): It's not just that Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd endorsed Obama. It's what he said while doing so.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: This is the moment for Democrats and Independents and others to come together to get behind this candidacy. I don't want a campaign that is only divisive here. And there's a danger of it becoming that.

CROWLEY: Dodd says he had a not-comfortable phone call with Hillary Clinton last night, but he denies he's suggesting she ought to drop out. Dodd says he's just trying to cool down the trail.

DODD: I know the temptation in campaigns beyond the ability of the candidates themselves to control it can get out of control. We've witnessed a little bit of that here. CROWLEY: This is not what Clinton needs right now as her campaign seeks terra firma with twin winds in Ohio and Texas. In an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Clinton seemed alternately angry with Obama for what she says are distortions of her record and mystified by his appeal.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that there is a certain phenomenon associated with his candidacy. And I am, you know, really struck by that because it is, you know, very much about him and his personality and his presentation.

CROWLEY: A policy wonk, Clinton is praised for her command of the issues, sometimes panned as robotic and cold. In the interview she agreed with the premise that she's misunderstood, suggesting it's a byproduct of tumultuous times during her husband's presidency.

CLINTON: I think what happened during the '90s was incredibly hurtful for the country and for people directly involved to be caricaturized and, you know, in a sense dehumanized.

CROWLEY: She is certainly down. More certainly not out. She looks at the week ahead and sees possibilities.

His candidacy is up, but not certain. He sees the dangers.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just want to remind people, I've got a long way to go. I don't want people to get any sense that, you know, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. What we've done successfully over the last month is take each contest one day at a time.

CROWLEY: This evening brings danger and possibilities to both candidates in the last debate for Tuesday's critical primaries.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: And of course, Wolf, with her own husband saying she must win Ohio and Texas to have a shot at the nomination, the stakes are higher for Senator Clinton tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy Crowley in Cleveland.

Thanks, Candy. We'll be checking back with you.

It was supposed to be a rousing warm-up for a John McCain event in Cincinnati. Instead, it turned into a tirade against Barack Obama, repeatedly stressing the Democrat's middle name, "Hussein," in a disparaging way. And it was a stark reminder of a potentially very ugly side to a campaign despite McCain's very quick and adamant apology.

Let's go to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's watching the story for us.

Was the McCain camp blindsided by this radio talk show host introduction of the Republican candidate, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the campaign says he was blindsided, that he had no idea that the talk show host was even part of the program, let alone that he was going to say controversial things.

Now, locals here say the talk show host in question is a magnet for controversy. But Wolf, it is safe to know this -- when the warm- up act is getting the headlines, it's a sign of trouble.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice over): At first glance perhaps a sign of progress -- a conservative radio talk show host on hand to support John McCain.

BILL CUNNINGHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: All is going to be right when the world when the great prophet from Chicago takes the stand and the world leaders who want to kill us will simply be singing "Kumbaya" together around the table of Barack Obama.

KING: Bill Cunningham is a local legend in Cincinnati...

CUNNINGHAM: Well, my fellow Americans, now we have a hack Chicago-style Daley politician who's picturing himself as change.

KING: ... and an instant headache for a candidate who every day promises a respectful tone.

CUNNINGHAM: It's going to peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama. That day will come. At some point the media will quit taking sides in this thing and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama.

KING: Senator McCain was on his bus at the time, planning to focus his day on the economy and national security.

SEN. JOHN McCain (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I'm telling you, it is succeeding. It is succeeding, and there's no doubt about that.

KING: But as he headed off stage after the event, top aide Mark Salter told McCain about Cunningham's remarks, and the senator immediately and repeatedly denounced them.

MCCAIN: I did not know about these remarks, but I take responsibility for them. I repudiate them.

KING: McCain said local supporters arranged the program and that he had never met Cunningham.

(on camera): Where do you draw the line? He called Senator Obama -- he said he was Chicago Daley political hack. And he twice used his middle name. Is Barack Obama's middle name appropriate in this campaign?

MCCAIN: No, it is not. Any comment disparaging of either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is totally inappropriate, and I absolutely repudiate such comments. And again, I will take responsibility. It will never happen again. It will never happen again.

CUNNINGHAM: I'm the warm up act, I'm introducing him, and I'm getting drilled by the candidate that I'm introducing.

KING: Later on his WLW program, Cunningham read news accounts of his comments and lashed out at the media coverage and at McCain.

MCCAIN: He said, "I repudiate him." He didn't even know what I said. How does he repudiate me without knowing what he's repudiating?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Now, some of McCain's local supporters here, Wolf, called into that radio program urging the host, Bill Cunningham, not to take it out on McCain. They blame the media, the national media, for stirring up a controversy.

He also, of course, reached out to the Obama campaign. They say they take Senator McCain at his word when he repudiated and denounced these remarks. They say the apology is accepted, and they say, Wolf, it is a hopeful sign for them that if it ends up being a McCain/Obama race, that it will be polite and respectful despite their major differences -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thanks very much.

John King in Cincinnati.

This programming note for our viewers -- Bill Cunningham will be John Roberts' guest later tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, on CNN's Election Center.

And remember, for the latest political news any time, you can check out our Political Ticker at cnnpolitics.com. The Ticker is the number one political news blog on the Web. That's also where you can read my latest blog post. I just posted one a few moments ago.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I think they got their call letters wrong on that guy's radio station. I think he's actually with WKRP in Cincinnati.

It looks like some of Hillary Clinton's advisers may be avoiding the political handwriting on the wall. In a terrific piece in today's "Washington Post" called "Team Clinton: Down and Out of Touch," Dana Milbank writes about a breakfast that was held Monday with two Clinton advisers and members of the media which she describes as a fascinating tour of an alternate universe.

First, one of Clinton's top advisers, Harold Ickes, he of the first Clinton administration, talked about Hillary's campaign in a way that seem far removed from the real world. He said they're "on the way to locking this nomination down." They're on the verge of their next upcycle, and that the race is "tight as a tick."

This called denial.

Next came anger in the person of Clinton spokesman Phil Singer, who ripped into the news media when he was asked about the photo of Barack Obama wearing Somali tribal dress. That picture first showed up early yesterday on "The Drudge Report," which claimed that they got it from someone inside the Clinton campaign. All day yesterday no denial from the Clinton campaign people that they may have in fact furnished that picture.

And then finally at 5:00 yesterday afternoon, after the damage had already been done, the Clinton campaign came out and said they had nothing to do with releasing that picture. Singer derided the news media, pointed to a sketch on "Saturday Night Live."

Milbank sums up with the piece with this -- quoting here -- "That Clinton spokesman is taking his cues from late-night comedy is as good an indication as any of where things stand in the onetime front- runner's campaign. To keep the press from declaring the race over before the voters of Ohio and Texas have their say next week, Clinton aides have resorted to a mixture of surreal happy talk and angry accusation."

Here's the question -- Is the Clinton campaign being realistic about Hillary's chances?

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

This is interesting, Wolf. There were over 800 letters sent into me before the show even went on the air today. I think that's the most we have gotten pre-4:00, before air, since I went crazy about that thing about Katrina a couple of years ago.

BLITZER: Yes. And the show hasn't even started yet. So just get ready for maybe a few thousand more in the next three hours, Jack.

Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Sure.

BLITZER: The Clinton campaign, we're going to get more on that.

Also more on the breaking news we're following. We're monitoring the massive power outage in Florida. We're going to have your I- reports coming up.

Also, those campaign officials from the Clinton campaign questioning Barack Obama's foreign policy experience. But was Bill Clinton any more experienced when he became president back in 1993?

I'll ask his former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, now a leading Hillary Clinton supporter. She's standing by live.

Also, what's driving Barack Obama's momentum? We're going to read between the lines of the latest poll numbers. And we're also checking in with the CNN Election Express down in Texas right now. Ali Velshi is there.

Are voters feeling anxious about the economy, or are they downright scared?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton says over and over again that she's ready to be commander in chief on day one. Let's talk about Senator Clinton's foreign policy credentials and her criticism of Barack Obama's experience level.

For that, we're joined now by the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who served in Bill Clinton's administration. She's endorsed Hillary Clinton for president of the United States.

Madame Secretary, thanks for coming in.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: Good to be with you, Wolf. Thanks.

BLITZER: On this issue of national security and experience versus change, here was Barack Obama's response to Hillary Clinton's criticism that he's not ready to be president on day one when it comes to national security. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: On what I believe was the single most important foreign policy decision of this generation, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, I believe I showed the judgment of a commander in chief. And I think that Senator Clinton was wrong in her judgments on that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So what's the answer? He says judgment is more important than experience.

ALBRIGHT: I think that they go together. And I think Hillary Clinton has experience and judgment. And just the way that she understands and discusses the complexity of the foreign policy issues, I think shows that she is a person that really understands how they fit together, how you use the various tools of diplomacy and force, how you deal with all the issues at the same time. And I think that she does have the experience in a unique way, and that she is ready to be president.

BLITZER: Did she show the right judgment though back in 2002 in authorizing President Bush to go to war?

ALBRIGHT: She has explained that vote so many times, Wolf, that it was a way to give some backing to the president to go to the United Nations to get the inspectors back in. And President Bush didn't follow out that diplomatic threat. And what she's mainly done now is I think provide a very good plan for how to get out of Iraq in a responsible way.

I've just come from the Middle East. And I think that they are very concerned about what American actions are going to be, how we are going to get out, how we will do it in the way that is responsible, that understands the difficulties, and that, in fact, makes very clear that there has to be a regional diplomatic surge. And Senator Clinton has talked about all of those things and is, I think, the right person to deal with the complexity of the issues out there.

Wolf, I have written in my new book that I think this is going to one of the most difficult presidencies that any of us have ever seen. And it's going to take somebody that really understands how it all goes together.

BLITZER: Well, are you suggesting Barack Obama doesn't have it, doesn't have what it takes?

ALBRIGHT: I have made the following vow to myself -- I am not saying anything negative about other candidates. I am positively saying that Senator Clinton is the one with the most experience to be president of the United States.

BLITZER: When it comes to experience, when Bill Clinton was elected back in '92, took off in '93, January 20th, he didn't have a whole lot of foreign policy experience, especially when compared to the first President Bush. He was governor of Arkansas for many, many years. And that didn't necessarily undermine him as far as you were concerned. You became his U.N. ambassador right away.

ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, I have to tell you, he had a foreign policy education, which I find interesting, because it's the same place I teach now, at Georgetown. And he also -- and this might surprise you -- the governor of Arkansas actually had a lot to do with foreign policy in terms of dealing with the Cuban boat lift and trade issues. And frankly, it took him a while to get his sea legs. And now life is going to be much more dangerous.

BLITZER: Are you comfortable with all the anti-NAFTA, all the anti-free trade talk that we're hearing from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama right now, this protectionist trade policy, this kind of rhetoric that's being hurled right now? Is that comfortable for you as a foreign policy expert?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I like to see more fair and free trade. But I can understand the negative aspects of what's happening with globalization and trade. I have always believed that the trade agreements needed to have environmental and labor standards, and that they have to be monitored.

And so I do agree that it has to be fair trade. It can't harm Americans. But ultimately we have to live in an integrated world, and those trade agreements have to help us do that.

BLITZER: Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state.

Thanks for joining us. ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Madeleine Albright, as you know, is a Clinton supporter. I just want to point out yesterday we spent this time talking with Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona. She's a supporter of Barack Obama.

The Senate sending this message to American Indians right now: we apologize. You're going to find out exactly why the U.S. Senate is trying to make amends with American Indians.

And who is afraid of John McCain? Apparently not Mike Huckabee. He has a special message for the presumptive Republican nominee. It concerns a one-one-one face-off.

We'll tell you what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, the sound of music easing tensions for two countries technically still at war. We're seeing the first-ever performance by a U.S. orchestra in North Korea. Will it help U.S.- North Korean relations? Or is it a PR coup by the secretive communist nation?

We're watching this story. Christiane Amanpour is standing by live.

Also, the only major female presidential candidate is losing female support. Now a big-name female celebrity comes out to help. What's Ellen DeGeneres saying on Hillary Clinton's behalf?

And a study says nearly half of Americans are switching their religious faiths or simply dropping out of them. What effect might that have on the presidential race right now?

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

Let's get back to the breaking news this hour. A massive power outage affecting Florida right now from Miami to Tampa.

We're hearing though from state officials in Florida, they're telling our John Zarrella that only about 100,000 people are left without power. That's down from potentially three million just a little while ago. That power statewide should be back by 6:00 p.m. Eastern, an hour and a half or so from now, for all of south Florida.

A utility company spokesperson says the outage was triggered by a significant equipment failure west of Miami. But questions still need to be answered about what caused the outage and the automatic shutdown of a nuclear power plant. Tens of thousands of customers are expected to get the power back within the next hour or so.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's following this story for us online.

What are the power companies telling these folks, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, let's start with Florida Power and Light, who had between 600,000 and 800,000 people affected earlier this afternoon. They're now telling their customers to please only call in an emergency situation right now, as they get this figured out.

A spokeswoman said that it was between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. Eastern when this nuclear plant -- this is Turkey Point, south of Miami -- shut down. And this supplies power annually to almost half-a-million homes. That spokeswoman saying they're trying to get these plants back online.

But elsewhere online, you will see it's other people affected, though we're seeing this improving all the time. From Progress Energy, further north in the -- in the state, looking at the area from Tampa to Orlando, with the situations with the power outages still going on.

We're also hearing from our I-Reporters that their situation is getting better, this from Carmen Morales, who is Miami. She said, when the power went off in the beauty salon where she was at that time, everyone was congregating on the street, trying to figure out what was going on. She has had power returned in the last hour. And she says that cell phone service is getting back to normal as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you.

Let's get back to the presidential race right now. Heading into a big debate with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Barack Obama may think of himself as an underdog, but a string of victories and political good fortune suggests otherwise.

Right now, there are new national -- national -- poll numbers worth taking a close look at.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Do we know, Bill, what's behind Barack Obama's momentum?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, electability. There's growing evidence that voters see Barack Obama now as more electable than Hillary Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Obama is the front-runner. That's the growing consensus. Three national polls of Democrats all show it. Average them, and you have Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton by 10 points. Here's something Democrats agree on even more. Around 70 percent believe Obama will get their nomination. What's driving the growing consensus? Electability has a lot to do with it. "The New York Times"/CBS News poll asked Democrats, which candidate has the best chance of beating John McCain in November? Answer, Obama by more than 30 points.

And it's not just Democrats. The "USA Today"/Gallup poll asked Republicans, which Democrat would McCain have a better chance of beating? Answer, Clinton, by nearly 50 points.

She's heard it all before.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hear all these folks talking about who is or isn't electable. Well, they said the same thing about me when I started running in New York.

SCHNEIDER: Let's ask the voters. All three national polls did. They show Clinton in a dead heat with McCain, while Obama leads McCain, but only by seven points.

Why does Obama do better? Here's his answer.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's a choice between going into the general election with Republicans and independents already united against us, or running with a campaign that has already united Americans of all parties around the agenda for change.

SCHNEIDER: Look at independents, those crucial swing voters. Independents give McCain a solid lead over Clinton. But independents abandon McCain for Obama, big time. If Obama is the alternative, McCain's support among independents drops from 52 percent to 36 percent.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: The difference in electability looks small. Neither Democrat looks like a sure winner or a sure loser. But the belief that Obama is more electable is taking hold -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider looking at the latest numbers for us, one week to go before the big contests next Tuesday -- thanks very much, Bill.

Some say Barack Obama is doing so well because of a political love fest between himself and the major national news media.

Let's talk about that with the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," Howard Kurtz.

Howie, some of this is actually coming, the suggestions of this love fest, from the Clinton campaign. Explain what's going on.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, Hillary Clinton's campaign has been complaining for months that the media are giving her a hard time and Barack Obama a free pass. Now the candidate herself is pointing to an unusual source to back her up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Like nearly everyone in the news media, the three of us are totally in the tank for Senator Obama.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ (voice-over): Comedy aside, it's hard to deny that Senator Obama has gotten largely upbeat coverage from the time he first flirted with running for president.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Barack Obama, the rising rock star.

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It's about Barack Obama, the rock star.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His rock star popularity.

SCHNEIDER: The media gave a big ride to Obama's endorsement by Oprah Winfrey. And, when Ted Kennedy backed him, there was talk of Obama as the new JFK. Some journalists have talked openly about the inspirational quality of his rallies and speeches.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: The feeling most people get when they hear a Barack Obama speech, my -- I felt this thrill going up my leg.

KURTZ: The news magazine covers on Obama and his wife, Michelle, have been glowing. "Why You Love Him" says "The New Republic."

While Hillary Clinton has been scrutinized from everything from her cleavage to her laugh to a couple of teary moments, controversies involving Obama never seem to get the same traction in the media world, his ties to indicted fund-raiser Tony Rezko, his pattern of voting "present" more than 100 times, sometimes on controversial bills, in the Illinois legislature, his decade-old meeting with former Weather Underground radical Bernardine Dohrn, Michelle Obama's comment that this is the first time she's been really proud of America.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said this week that the media have largely applauded Obama for attacking Clinton, while his candidate gets criticized when she goes after Obama.

And, while that overstates the case, some journalists say the details are less important than the overarching plotline.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every big story has a narrative. And the narrative here has been one of the heroic young challenger against the mighty incumbent-like woman who is running for president.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: There are signs that Obama is starting to draw a bit more critical scrutiny, now that he's the Democratic front-runner, but it will take a lot more of that to change the "Saturday Night Live" image of a pro-Obama press corps -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Howie, thanks very much -- Howie Kurtz reporting.

Hillary Clinton, by the way, is taking a new shot at the Barack Obama bandwagon.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I think it dangerously oversimplifies the complexity of the problems we face, the challenge of navigating our country through some difficult, uncharted waters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Just ahead, we're going to hear more from Senator Clinton's latest interview and the red flags she's raising about Barack Obama.

Plus, new and downbeat economic reports, very disturbing numbers. Are Texas voters feeling the pain a week before the pivotal primary there? We're going to check in with Ali Velshi. He's aboard the CNN Election Express.

And the Democrats get ready for yet another debate. How much rougher can Clinton afford to get with Barack Obama this time? The "Strategy Session" and a lot more -- just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It may be good news in oil country, but it's hard to swallow for the rest of us. Crude oil future prices surged to a new record high today, closing above $100 a barrel. The average price of gas rose 16 cents a gallon over the past two weeks alone, 75 percent in a year.

And a new report just out today shows consumer confidence dropped significantly last month, to the lowest level in nearly five years. Wholesale inflation rose sharply last month as well.

So, how is all of this playing out in Texas a week before the important primary there?

Let's go out to Ali Velshi, traveling throughout Texas aboard the CNN Election Express right now.

Ali, what's -- what's the reaction as you speak to voters where you are? And I know you're in one town right now, what is it, Goliad, right now? ALI VELSHI, CNN SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I'm in Goliad. We are southeast of Austin, northwest of Corpus Christi, a stiff wind blowing in off the Gulf.

But I will tell you, most of the people in this town don't have -- this is a town steeped in Texas history. They probably haven't heard what you just said just yet, because all of that news you just gave us is new today, more evidence of a troubled economy.

But, when I talked to people here, this is exactly what they told me. I had a conversation with a young woman named Hilary. She's two weeks shy of her 18th birthday. She's not going to make it to vote in the primary. She is definitely going to make it to vote in the election. Her parents own the restaurant that is on this town square.

And she was telling us that they are feeling the pinch of both gas prices and inflation. Listen to what she has to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILARY HAYES, TEXAS RESIDENT: Now it's affecting the prices. We're fixing up to go up on prices because of the cost of gas is causing our delivery costs to go up. So, we're having to raise all of our prices on that. And it's really affecting that.

In our business, we see -- we're seeing less people coming in. On the weekends, it's been slower. So, none of us are making as much money as we were.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Now, Wolf, Goliad is the kind of place where some people winter down here. Some people make day trips. It's got a lot of history. They depend on people coming in. The gas prices have affected people. They still see a lot of people coming in and enjoying the shops and the history.

But a lot of people we have spoken to have said that tourists spend a little less money sometimes. They are definitely feeling it. This is a place where there is ranching in the area. There's oil in the area. But, you know, if you're not making your money off oil in Texas, then you're just like anyone else anywhere else in the country. And that is that you're paying a lot for it. So, it's affecting people very seriously.

The stiff wind is going to blow my hat off. So, I will probably leave it there for you, Wolf. We're going to be spending the night here and talking to more people in Goliad, Texas.

BLITZER: All right. Looks like a nice little town. Thanks very much, Ali, for that -- Ali Velshi on the road in the CNN Election Express.

In our "Strategy Session," Mike Huckabee, he is the candidate who won't go away, certainly won't go away quietly. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we ought to still have another debate before next Tuesday.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HUCKABEE: And I just want to say, I'm available any time, any place, any location on any network.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, how much of a distraction is Huckabee, as McCain tries to focus his attention on the Democrats?

And Obama vs. Clinton. As the two prepare themselves to debate, what must Clinton do to challenge Obama?

Donna Brazile and John Feehery, they're standing by live for our "Strategy Session" here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debate later tonight, many people are wondering which side of Hillary Clinton might show up, the one that embraces Barack Obama or the one that berates him.

Let's get to that question in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political analyst, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist John Feehery.

It's -- it's really a fine line. I write about this on CNNPolitics.com in my blog post today. You know, on the one hand, if she slams him too hard, Democrats are upset that she's effectively doing McCain's work, assuming McCain gets the nomination. On the other hand, she's trying to differentiate herself between her stance and his stance.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I think Senator Clinton is in a real box. On one hand, she needs to draw some contrasts with Senator Obama, the experience gap, so to speak, to -- to try to find something that will stick.

Look, they're -- they're trying, at this ninth hour -- they're throwing spaghetti up against the wall, saying, what will stick? The problem is, is that Obama has been consistent. His message has been consistent. He's been consistent. He's a better debater these days than Senator Clinton. If she comes after him with something negative, I would suggest that he just turn the other cheek and go positive, go back on message, act a little upset, but just go on message.

BLITZER: Does she risk alienating, though, Democratic voters if she gets too rough out in the debate?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, listen, this is the 15th round of the boxing match, and she needs a knockout, because she's way behind in points. She's going to -- the temptation is going to be swing wildly.

But, if she swings wildly, as you said, she is going to alienate a lot of people. She needs some precision punches that get with actual policies that will -- for the knockout blow. She's already been -- the campaign has been trying everything, the kitchen sink, as some strategist said. And it's not working. So, they need real policies, real debating points. And she needs a knockout punch. And she needs to do it precisely.

BLITZER: And, unless he makes a major blunder, it doesn't look like -- as you say, he's a much better debater now than he was a year ago.

BRAZILE: Her closing comments last week, people thought it was a concession speak. She was actually connecting with voters. That's the Hillary that -- that should show up tonight. Connect with the voters, say, I will fight for the middle class. People want a fighter. They don't want to see someone hit just to hit.

BLITZER: Is the Chris Dodd endorsement today of Barack Obama a big deal or a little deal?

BRAZILE: I think it's a big deal. I mean, look, Dennis Kucinich has endorsed him, Chris Dodd. They're both superdelegates. He raised $15 million, had the firefighter unions. An endorsement at this hour means that you have one more delegate to count at night.

BLITZER: You think it's a big deal?

FEEHERY: I do. And I think the reason it might be a big deal is, he is a very nice vice presidential candidate. He appeals very much to ethnic voters. He's got the gray hair that I think Barack Obama needs. He's good on foreign policy.

BLITZER: Does you think they want two senators on the ticket, though?

FEEHERY: Well, it's interesting that you have senators involved.

But Obama -- if you're going to pick a senator, Chris Dodd is the best one you can pick for Obama.

BRAZILE: And he's a great validator. He will help on experience as well.

BLITZER: She got a -- she got a nice endorsement from Ellen DeGeneres. I will play a little clip. Maybe Ellen DeGeneres is not Oprah Winfrey, but she is still Ellen DeGeneres.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")

ELLEN DEGENERES, HOST, "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW": Now, listen here.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGENERES: Here's...

(LAUGHTER)

DEGENERES: Here's my first question, Senator Clinton. Now, I have said I have a problem with glitter. It -- it should be banned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: She's very funny, Ellen DeGeneres.

What do think? Is this going to resonate?

BRAZILE: Well, I thought she would endorse Obama. Obama went on her show and did the boogie-woogie. I don't know if Hillary could do a dance, but...

BLITZER: He was good, too.

BRAZILE: He was absolutely -- he has the groove.

BLITZER: Yes.

BRAZILE: But, clearly, she supports Hillary. And that should help Hillary with some of her viewers.

FEEHERY: You know, Hillary needs someone who will endorse that actually appeals to men, because that's where her problem is. I don't think Ellen DeGeneres appeals to men. I mean, men don't watch her show.

This is too little, too late. If this was going to be effect, it would have had to come right after Oprah, and they would have had to do a tour...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I'm going to -- I'm going to be on her show, because I'm still waiting for that invitation she's -- she's been promising.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: And you are quite -- and you are quite the man.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Oh, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I'm going to have some fun when I go on that show. BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the other side, the other debate that potentially is out there. You heard Mike Huckabee saying he's ready to debate any time, any place, any network between now and Tuesday. He would like to go one-on-one with John McCain.

Is that going to happen? You think McCain should do that?

FEEHERY: You know, I think they should debate on "Saturday Night Live," because I know you want to have the debate here, but on "Saturday Night Live" because the Huckabee campaign is becoming a little bit of a joke.

And, actually, it's kind of funny. If you watched him on "Saturday Night Live," he was actually pretty funny. The problem -- the good thing about having Huckabee out there is, he keeps pushing McCain, making McCain seem more and more of an independent, more and more of a centrist. And that actually will help with independent voters. But there's not going to be any debates. Let's not kid ourselves.

BLITZER: But McCain is -- the Straight Talk Express. Is it theoretically possible -- I say this in all seriousness -- it could help McCain to have a debate with Mike Huckabee, who clearly likes and respects John McCain? They're not going to get personal against each other. They have got a good relationship.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: I don't think it would help John McCain at this point.

And, by the way, I want to say that I thought what McCain did today, after that radio talk show host gave all that lip service, McCain showed once again why most Americans respect him.

BLITZER: you know, he came out and he apologized. He didn't know anything about that introduction that that radio talk show host was giving.

FEEHERY: It's not like talk radio show hosts really like John McCain anyway. So, this was kind of an interesting...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Yes. But we're going to have a lot more on this part of the story...

FEEHERY: Right.

BRAZILE: I agree.

BLITZER: ... coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Guys, thanks for coming in.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

FEEHERY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton speaking openly. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: We're vying for the toughest job in the world. And it's going to be especially hard, following President Bush, to get in there and repair the damage and chart a new course.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: She's also speaking openly about some details involving her marriage with Bill Clinton and the campaign -- a lot more on that coming up. You may be surprised, by the way, to hear where Senator Clinton chose to talk about all of this.

And officials tell CNN 100,000 people right now in Florida are still without electrical power. A massive equipment failure plunges much of the state into darkness. We're going to have the latest on what is going on in Florida right now. Fortunately, most of it looks like it's about to end.

And the mayor of New York City blasting the newspaper that bears the city's name. Wait until you hear what Michael Bloomberg has to say about the recent "New York Times" story about John McCain.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In today's Political Ticker: New York's mayor is critical of the city's top newspaper, Michael Bloomberg saying "The New York Times"' report on John McCain's ties to a lobbyist amounted to a smear.

Bloomberg's office confirming a report describing the mayor's anger about the article. Bloomberg reportedly is weighing a possible independent presidential bid, though he has repeatedly denied any plans right now to run.

More evidence that the Republican Party establishment is rallying behind the likely nominee, John McCain. Today, the McCain campaign announced the senator's endorsement by six former Republican National Committee chairmen, the former party chiefs urging fellow Republicans to follow their lead and to unite around John McCain.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, check out CNNPolitics.com.

Let's go back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is, is the Clinton campaign being realistic about Hillary's chances to secure this nomination? We got this from Vince in Los Angeles: "Hillary's campaign is in so much denial, it hurts to watch. Even if she were to win both Ohio and Texas, it would not be enough to close the pledged delegate gap. I do not understand why both she and her supporters do not see this. Her only hope of winning the nomination is to seat Michigan and Florida delegates, and that would split the party right down the middle."

Robert writes: "I recently read Hillary Clinton is so focused on her campaign, she won't allow her staff to read negative press releases to her, stating, I don't need to hear that kind of negativity, now. Sounds like this might be the key mistake that her campaign has made. She has exposed herself with this policy as the self-absorbed demagogue that she is. She just doesn't get the fact that her birthright to the presidency has been revoked."

Melissa writes: "Jack Cafferty, you are the biggest male chauvinist on television. Every day, without fail, your questions slam the only woman in the history of our country who has come this close to being a nominee for president of the United States. What is your problem with strong, accomplished women?"

Daniel writes: "If the Clinton campaign was being realistic about this nomination, they would have planned out a campaign that went past Super Tuesday. By expecting to have the nomination all wrapped up by the beginning of February and running like an incumbent, they severely misjudged what the American public wants in the next president."

Joan writes: "Ohio and Texas haven't voted yet, folks. She could realistically win both states. As an Obama supporter, I certainly hope he prevails, but I'm not a prophet, so I will have to wait. If he wins, I suspect Hillary will end her campaign for the good of the Democratic Party."

And, finally, Bob writes this: "This is symptomatic of the core problems of the Clinton campaign: arrogance. We are sick and tired of the smugness of Bush, the nerve of Cheney, and the manipulation of Bill Clinton. That is why we have McCain, who at least comes across as a straight talker, and Obama, a breath of fresh air. Hopefully, this breeze will blow through Washington and we will all be the better for it."

BLITZER: Jack, you think the media have been too tough on Hillary Clinton and too soft, if you will, on Barack Obama?

CAFFERTY: Oh, you know, I don't know.

Off the top of my head, I -- I would be inclined to say no. The ascension of Barack Obama from unknown to -- to consensus favorite now to win the nomination is a tailor-made story for the media in this country. America loves an underdog.

And when you couple that with the fact that, as some of our viewers point out, Hillary Clinton started out as a pseudo-incumbent in this race, telling Katie Couric, "It will be me," when she was asked, "What if you lose this thing?" and -- and telling everybody within earshot that nobody had a chance of securing the nomination but her, when Obama began to make a move, it was perfect. I mean, Hollywood couldn't script this stuff any better.

And I think, if there was any great, you know, scandal in the closet, I'm sure the good people at the Clinton campaign would have dug it out and let us all know about it by now.

BLITZER: Jack, stand by. We have got the best political team on television coming up. Thanks very much.

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

Happening now: an ugly personal attack on Barack Obama -- the stunning tirade coming from a supporter of John McCain at a McCain rally. You're going to hear the rant and McCain's reaction.

Hillary Clinton speaking out about Barack Obama's mystique and meteoric rise. And she offers a very candid discussion of her own marital problems and how she got through them.

And the Iron Curtain goes up for an extraordinary concert. A top American orchestra plays in North Korea.

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