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Influential Clinton Supporter Defects to Obama; John McCain Battles Conservative Radio Talk Show Hosts

Aired February 27, 2008 - 20:00   ET


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And thanks for joining us in the CNN ELECTION CENTER.
There's plenty of fallout from last night's debate. The pundits have been chewing over it all day. We will, too, a little bit.

But, with next week's big primary just six days away, the candidates are already looking ahead. And so are we. Here's what we're bringing front and center. Hillary Clinton's campaign suffered a real blow today. One of her most important superdelegates, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, is defecting to Barack Obama. Are other black leaders considering leaving, too?

Plus, John McCain's problem on the right is getting louder. Is conservative talk radio in full rebellion because the senator disavowed talk radio host Bill Cunningham's warmup?

Senators Obama and John McCain are acting like primary season is already over. Will the general election be a war of words over Iraq? It sure sounds like it.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have some news. Al Qaeda is in Iraq. Al Qaeda is called al Qaeda in Iraq.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have some news for John McCain. And that is that there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.


BROWN: Let's get started with the news that rocked Hillary Clinton's world today. Superdelegate John Lewis is defecting to Barack Obama.

Senior political correspondent Candy Crowley is in Zanesville, Ohio, covering the Clinton campaign.

And, Candy, what's the reaction been?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, what can you do but move on? But basically Hillary Clinton did a couple of interviews with local stations and said, I am a friend of John Lewis'. I will be a friend of John Lewis' forever. She also noted that listen people don't vote on the basis of who has endorsed you, but on the basis of your plans and your experience.

She also sort of mentioned what has been going on here and she said, you know, I know that John has been under a lot of pressure. And in the interviews that Lewis gave to some affiliates in Georgia, he did sort of seem to indicate that there had been some pressure at least on himself when he talked about his civil rights days when he was a warrior and how that compares to this choice.


REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: It was easy to walk across that bridge and face those state troopers and be beaten and left bloody. This has been hard. This has been difficult. But there comes a time when you have to make a decision. As a superdelegate to the Democratic Convention next summer, I will be casting my vote for Barack Obama.


CROWLEY: Now, part of what Lewis said, Campbell, was that his district overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama in the Georgia primary and that he was following suit. But as you can see, this is very, very hard in the African-American community. Some of the leaders in particular John Lewis have been so close to Clintons and, yet, along comes this African-American who has a real shot at the White House.

And friends were saying, wait a minute. For the first time we have a real chance at the White House and you're not going to vote for him. So, the pressure is intense.

BROWN: Candy, talk to us a little bit, too, about her message today especially after the debate last night. Has it changed at all in terms of what she's talking about on the trail?

CROWLEY: It hasn't changed. They really have so far had a kind of steady as she goes message. She's still talking about her plans, her policies. You know, she favors those roundtables, which can be pretty wonky.

But they believe that strength is her experience and the details that she knows about plans and policies. She talked a little bit with reporters on the plane today and gave another indication that what she's trying to do right now is to focus voters on what the stakes are in this election.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I feel is happening is that people are turning toward the big questions that they should have to answer in this campaign. Who can be the best commander in chief we want in the White House answering the phone at 3:00 a.m.? Who will be the best steward of the economy?


CROWLEY: And the Clinton campaign thinks that Ohio in particular is a very good state. They believe that her message, her plans for the economy, her plans for those bankruptcies, her plans for creating jobs, all have great resonance here in Ohio, which as you know, has had a lot of problems with joblessness that they blame on NAFTA, by the way.

BROWN: All right. Appreciate it, Candy Crowley, for us with the Clinton campaign.

Now we're going to more about this. With me now from Washington is Kiki McLean. And she is a senior campaign adviser for Senator Hillary Clinton.

Kiki, appreciate your time tonight.


BROWN: So, you tell us. How did Senator Clinton take the news about Congressman Lewis?

MCLEAN: Well, I think she made it very clear that he's her friend. She cares deeply about him and she understands the pressure he's under. It's an endorsement of a superdelegate today, but her message today was really spent in Ohio at a major at a major economic summit working with governors and mayors and CEOs and working families there about their future. So I think we have had a pretty good day today.

BROWN: Did they talk on the phone? Did the two of them speak at all?

MCLEAN: I'm not sure yet. She's been on the road today, so I don't know if they have connected for spoken. And I have been working at the Arlington headquarters, so I don't have an update for you on that.

BROWN: So, Kiki, some suggest that what this means is that other Clinton supporters may follow, is that Congressman Lewis' decision gives them cover essentially, people who may be getting cold feet, and that the floodgates could open at this point. What's the campaign doing to try to prevent that?

MCLEAN: Well, I think what the campaign is doing is respecting superdelegates and those who have decided that it's about their judgment and their decision on where they go and what they should do based on their judgment of who will be the best president and the best representative of the party.

That's our philosophy. That's the position and the approach we support. It's where chairman Dean is as well and even David Axelrod from the Obama campaign has said that that's really the right approach, that superdelegates are really to follow their own judgment about who they believe will be the best president and the in fact best representative of the party.

BROWN: All right, Kiki, let's talk about the debate a little bit.


BROWN: Why did she complain or why did she decide to complain last night about treatment by the media? It did seem a little bit odd of her to complain about always getting the first question in these debates when they were only into the debate by two questions at that point. What was going on?

MCLEAN: Well, you know what? I think that's a really simple observation that a lot of people have made. "Saturday Night Live" made some fun of that. It's been a little bit of a buzz that's been going around. And I think what was great about the debate last night was the amount of time they spent talking about real issues.

I loved when Brian Williams looked up and said 16 minutes of health care, wow. That was a great moment for the American people, that they spent 16 minutes on health care.

BROWN: Does she think she was treated fairly?

MCLEAN: I think she thinks she can deal with it. She said today, listen, this is a woman who is prepared to be president of the United States, deal with dictators around the world, deal with leadership issues on the most critical issues, she can deal with reporters and the media. And it's fine.

BROWN: But if it is all about the issues, then why bring up that kind of complaint in the middle of the debate?

MCLEAN: Well, I think you also are getting questions from the reporters to her about style and not always about substance. And I think what she did last night was she really tried to focus on substance.

BROWN: So these debates have been extremely important to her. She's pressed for even more debates than have been on the schedule.

MCLEAN: Sure. Sure.

BROWN: But last night's debate didn't seem to be major game changer. Do you think it was?

MCLEAN: Well, listen, I think debates are important in terms of making information available.

As we get closer to voting in big states like Texas and Ohio and don't forget Rhode Island and Vermont are next Tuesday as well, people want to focus in those states, learn what's going on, understand where the candidates are, and understand the choice they have in front of them because there is a very clear choice.

They are different candidates with different positions on health care. One has more experience when it comes to the economy. One has had travel in 80 countries, dealt with issues from top to bottom and she's ready to be president on day one. And it's important to get that information out there for voters.

BROWN: All right, Kiki McLean for us from Washington -- Kiki, thanks. Appreciate it.

And we want to talk more about the question of how John Lewis' switch to Obama will affect other superdelegates.

And I'm joined by a pair of superdelegates right now, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, who is a Clinton supporter, and Representative Barbara Lee California, who is supporting Obama.

Appreciate both of you being with us. Thanks for joining us.


BROWN: Let me start with you, Congressman Cleaver.

And just give me your reaction to Representative Lewis' decision.

CLEAVER: Well, I saw him today, joked with him earlier today. I have no reaction. I understand clearly that he is in charge of himself. He made a decision based on his own congressional district.

He has been under pressure. And I think he is a national hero. He is one of my heroes for sure. And I have nothing but respect for him. I also must say that there were those that put pressure on Mr. Lewis.

BROWN: But who were they? What kind of pressure?

CLEAVER: Well, I think you would have to ask him to talk about that.

BROWN: But you said you knew he was under pressure. So, who are you talking about?

CLEAVER: Yes, I do know. Well, I can only talk to you about what he said in the general way. I think he would have to give specifics if he chose to do that. And I think that -- and there are others if you're interested.

One of the ironies here is that one of the legends of the civil rights movement has been bludgeoned over what he fought to obtain for all of us. And that is that people could make independent political decisions without reprisal.

BROWN: Representative Lee, what about you? What's your reaction to the decision? Do you think he could move others to switch as well?

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, first, let me just say that I have a lot of respect for Congressman John Lewis. He is, as Congressman Cleaver said, a hero to many of us. Many of us wouldn't be here if it had not been for Congressman John Lewis. And I'm very delighted with his decision. However, I think it's important to recognize that he communicated earlier very clearly as to the reasons why he decided to support Senator Obama. And I respect his reasons. And of course I think this is going to be, as we all know, a very tight campaign. And I think it's important to recognize that all of us want to make sure that we elect a Democrat. We are going to unify and we are going to go forward and beat Senator McCain.

BROWN: But, Congressman Cleaver, let me go back to you. Your district went for Senator Obama. You are supporting Hillary Clinton. Do you feel comfortable with that?

CLEAVER: Well, my district barely went for Senator Obama. The state of Missouri was split, its delegates, down the middle. But there is something going on here that's fundamentally wrong, because I have not heard anybody question Ted Kennedy or John Kerry about why they haven't switched from Senator Obama to Senator Clinton.

There are many white superdelegates who were in states that went for Senator Clinton. And, for some reason, I can't really put my hand on it, all of the questions are about responding to your district seems to be coming to the African-Americans.

BROWN: Then try to put your finger on it. Do you think it is a question of race? Is that why you think those questions aren't being asked?

CLEAVER: Well, I don't know why the questions aren't being asked, because I just try to do my work every day. I don't know all of the intricacies of the media.

BROWN: But do you believe that's what it is about?

CLEAVER: Well, here's a fact. And I think you can -- you will concur with this, that African-Americans are the ones who are experiencing pressure. African-Americans are the ones who are being asked the questions.

Massachusetts went heavily for Senator Clinton. And I looked at newspapers over the DNC earlier this afternoon to find out if there's been any questions raised in either the media or anywhere else about why they haven't switched over to Senator Clinton, and...

BROWN: Well, let me ask Representative Lee to follow up on what you suggest. Do you believe, Representative Lee, that the Obama campaign or that other superdelegates supporting Obama are pressuring African-Americans who are supporting Senator Clinton to switch to possibly be supporting the first African-American president?

LEE: Absolutely not. Let me just say, this election is about the people, the will of the people. This is about the voters. This is not about superdelegates. I said earlier I know that we are going to work this out before the convention, when you look at the fact that superdelegates are not there to thwart the will of the people, but they're there to really support the will of the people. We're in the midst of some very fine, very active campaigns. Young people are voting in numbers we have never seen before. People are going to the polls in droves. And so I think this is a good time. This is our democracy working. And we have to listen to the will of the people and understand what the people are saying. They want change. They want a new direction. They want to reshape America's image in the world.

And I think all of this talk about superdelegates really takes us away from the real issues of the day. And the issues of the day are we have to be beat Senator McCain.


BROWN: OK, real quick, Congressman Cleaver.


CLEAVER: I need to say I did not say that Senator Obama was pressuring African-Americans. And I think that's important.

I don't campaign against Senator Obama. Either of our candidates who get the nomination will get my full support. But I am saying that I do think that if you look at this race, there are some things that are going on that I think under the microscope will cause some concern for all people who are fair.

BROWN: All right.

All right. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, appreciate it. And Congresswoman Barbara Lee, thank you both for your time tonight.

LEE: Thank you.

CLEAVER: Good to be here.

BROWN: John Lewis' defection extends to Senator Obama's lead in the race that really matters and that is the one for convention delegates. By CNN's estimate, Obama has a nearly 100-delegate lead over Senator Clinton, but both are still far short of what's needed to win the nomination.

Clinton's lead in superdelegates is keeping the very close. Search has 56 more than Obama does. On the Republican side of things, John McCain hasn't quite locked up the nomination, even though he's nearly 800 delegates ahead of his rivals. Note that Mike Huckabee still hasn't caught Mitt Romney, who has been out of the race for weeks now.

And with all the catching up Senator Clinton has to do, is playing the victim card the best way to reconnect with Democratic voters? We are going to look at that next.

Plus, the war of words over the war.


Hillary Clinton today lost the support of Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. So, how does she stop her other supporters from following Lewis into Barack Obama's camp?

With me tonight, Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary during the first two-and-a-half years of the Bush administration.

And so far he hasn't declared support for any candidate or contributed to a campaign, right, Ari?




BROWN: OK. Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of "The Nation" and her magazine has endorsed Obama, even though she personally has not. And then we have got CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, who is with us in Washington.

I think we have defined everyone appropriately.

Gloria, let me start with you before I go to the partisans. And just give me your reaction to John Lewis' defection.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this was probably very painful for the Clinton campaign today. They obviously knew that it was coming. I think the big question that everyone is asking is, OK, since Super Tuesday, almost 30 or around 30 superdelegates have defected to the Obama camp. And I think that there's going to be a question out there whether, depending on how Hillary Clinton does on March 4th, whether this is a sign of things to come.

It's not great news in the Clinton campaign, particularly, Campbell -- I must say, on a personal level, I was in Selma, Alabama, last March and watched John Lewis link arms with Hillary Clinton that day on the commemoration of Bloody Sunday. They're close personal friends. This was very tough for him, and it was very tough for her.

BROWN: How significant, though, Katrina?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, "THE NATION": I think it's very significant. It's not just John Lewis moving. February has been the cruelest month for Hillary Clinton.

From the beginning, I think it's -- never say never. She may still pull it out. But I think it's a moment to take stock of the mistake she made, was to run as a quasi-incumbent in a change year. She underestimated Obama and the desire for change in this country. She's been out-organized. And I think the danger now is, if Hillary Clinton tries to rely on the superdelegates, thwarting the popular will, you might have a civil war in the Democratic Party, a party that knows the stakes in November. And I think it jeopardizes her reputation moving forward to do what she wants to do. There is a future after this election.

BROWN: Ari, is that exactly what Republicans would like to see happen, a civil war?

ARI FLEISCHER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, frankly, what Republicans want is for Hillary Clinton to pull this out somehow, even though there's a lot about Obama that we are learning that say we actually do have a good chance against him. I think the favorite candidate for all Republicans is Hillary.


FLEISCHER: Her negatives are so high. But I very much agree with that assessment that Hillary ran as an incumbent in a change environment. And that did her in. Or that's doing her in.


BROWN: Doing her in.


BROWN: Let's look at some of the poll numbers, in fact. And this is the new "L.A. Times" poll. It's showing her lead among women is tightening up. It used to be a 12 percentage point lead I think back in January. And now it's just about a point between the two of them. What's happening there?

FLEISCHER: This is the time that Hillary Clinton needs her strength the most, but it's sapping away from her. And John Lewis is a symbol of that. Everything you want, as Election Day comes, you want to peak. You want to do better. You want to do more.

All her core constituencies now are cutting against her. And she's losing them. They're narrowing. And this is her problem heading into what could be her last two states that she's campaigning in. Not over yet, but it certainly is tough.

VANDEN HEUVEL: She's tried to find her voice. And she found it for a moment in New Hampshire when she won that primary. And then her husband came in and stepped on her voice. She had the fire wall of women voters there. She's also spoken, I think eloquently, as a populist.

Obama, though, has that message as well. I think the important thing, I have to say, last night, she found her voice, where she talked about her vote on the war. If she hadn't listened to her political consultants and strategists, my view, and voted against that war resolution, she might be the nominee today. That is my view.

(CROSSTALK) BROWN: Gloria, hold on. I want to play a little tape from last night, because we talked about finding her voice and how she found it in New Hampshire when she got teary-eyed, that moment everyone talked about.

Let's play a little sound from last night. This is when she was also sort of playing the victim.


CLINTON: In the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind. You know, I will be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw "Saturday Night Live," you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow.

I just find it kind of curious that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues, but I'm happy to answer it.


BROWN: So, Gloria, take this. Blaming the media, looking for a little sympathy, is it something that can work for her?

BORGER: Well, first of all, she's not happy to answer the questions obviously if she's complaining about getting them first. And when you're making the case that you want to run the country, you really can't say, gee, guys, but don't give me the first question.

I think that that was something that she wanted to kind of appeal to women. We women know, OK? We get it. Sometimes you're called on first. You have got to be better. You have got to be stronger. But I think we're kind of beyond that in the campaign. And later in the debate, Obama said, you know, his campaign doesn't whine about Hillary Clinton's mailers or grouse or complain about them.

And I'm not quite sure the exact word he used, but the implication there was, stop griping and just get on with it.

VANDEN HEUVEL: But there has been. There has been a lot of sexist bashing and misogyny in this campaign. I may disagree with Hillary Clinton on the issues, but some of her former colleagues at MSNBC and other places have had a field day, and Maureen Dowd at "The New York Times" channeling some of this bashing. Hillary Clinton wants to be a fighter. It's tough for her to also be a victim. But let us not excuse the media's role in some of what she's been through.

BROWN: OK. We're coming back with all of you and a lot more on this. But we have got to take a quick break.

Ari, Katrina, and Gloria, a lot more to cover coming up.

Believe it or not, there's more than one way for Hillary Clinton to claim victory on March 4th. We consider the possibilities coming up next.


BROWN: So, no doubt Hillary Clinton has a lot riding on this Tuesday's primary. Some experts, including her husband, have suggested if she doesn't win in Texas and Ohio, it will be over.

But what if she splits the states? No matter who wins, neither candidate will have enough pledged delegates to win the nomination outright and technically this could go on until the convention in August. So, what would define a win for Clinton in Tuesday's showdown?

Well, Chris Cillizza wrote about this today in his political blog "The Fix" on

Hey, Chris. Welcome.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Hey, Campbell. Thanks for having me.

BROWN: So, let's kind of talk through some of your scenarios you presented today, but start us off with -- let's talk about Bill Clinton first to start us off, the one thing that he says has to happen in order for Hillary Clinton to win the nomination.

Let's listen.


WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she will be the nominee.


W. CLINTON: If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you.


BROWN: All right. So, you have talked to some experts, created the scenarios of what could possibly happen next Tuesday. The first one you call double win. She takes Texas and Ohio. What does it all mean?

CILLIZZA: Well, Campbell, let me just preface it by saying none of these are easy. The former president seems to think, well, you just win Texas, Ohio, and then everything will be fine. Both states, she's running very close. She's ahead by a little bit in Ohio, behind a little bit in Texas.

But the first scenario is basically that she wins these two states, Ohio, huge population, Midwest, key general election battleground, and Texas, a state with a big Hispanic population, a state that the Clintons have long ties to. Remember, as she reminds voters all the time when she's in Texas, Senator Clinton has -- it was one of her first jobs, registering voters in Texas. She wins the two of those states, it gives her enough momentum. It stops the superdelegate creep that you were just talking about.

BROWN: Right.

CILLIZZA: It allows her to go on to Pennsylvania. So, that's scenario one.

BROWN: OK. Scenario two is, she wins one, loses the other.

CILLIZZA: And that scenario is a lot harder, I think. As we have seen superdelegates, John Lewis being the latest example, defecting from Clinton to Obama, he's gained 35 superdelegates since February 5th. She's lost five. Those are tough numbers for her. If she loses one of those two states that she spent time and resources on and made clear throughout the campaign that these were going to be her firewall states, despite the fact that Obama has won 11 straight contests, Ohio and Texas were going to be her firewall, I just think it's hard for her to go on. There's going to be a lot of establishment pressure for her to reconsider her political future if that split scenario happens.

BROWN: Right. OK. And we've all been talking about Texas and Ohio, but there are actually two other states that are having primaries on the same day which are Vermont and Rhode Island. So that leads us to scenario three.

CILLIZZA: Well, scenario three basically is that Clinton needs to not only win Ohio and Texas but also add either Vermont or Rhode Island. About half the people I talked to, these are unaligned Democratic strategist, they don't really have a dog in the fight said Ohio and Texas may not be enough. It's going to be probably pretty close in those states if she manages to win. So she's going to need to add another state in there. I think Rhode Island is more likely than Vermont. But, you know, that's three out of four for a candidate who has lost 11 straight. That's a -- that's a big turnaround.

BROWN: OK. And finally, scenario four is she can win Texas and Ohio but still lose the delegate count. So explain how that would work.

CILLIZZA: Well, this is the one where my English major doesn't really do me that much good. To be honest, Campbell, this is a math question really. And the problem is that Texas has -- allocates its delegates by primary on March 4th but also through a caucus process. So Senator Clinton could win narrowly in Texas, get more delegates but then the statewide delegates are given out in a caucus later in the year. Barack Obama has run much stronger in caucuses than Senator Clinton. You would guess that a caucus in Texas would favor him, so she could win and yet lose.

And remember, delegates have the coin of the realm here. Whoever can get to 2,025 first is going to be the candidate that wins this nomination. So she could frankly, lose by winning. She needs to win by broad margins in Ohio and Texas to ensure that she closes that delegate gap with Senator Obama. It's not an easy task.

BROWN: But, you know, Chris, we all talk about this like it's going to be a make or break moment for her. But then, when Obama won Iowa, everyone said it's over for her. She goes on to win in New Hampshire, and a lot of people had to eat crow. Is that possible? Are we counting her out a little bit too quickly?

CILLIZZA: Absolutely. You know, the one thing we know about conventional wisdom in this campaign is it's often been wrong. So I think you need to credit it and say, OK, this is the conventional wisdom but recognize that things can be different.

The one difference I will say, Campbell, between what happened in New Hampshire and now is that we've had a lot of contests. There's a lot more road behind us in this nominating contest than in front of us. So Senator Clinton needs to make something happen, needs to change that narrative, needs to change that storyline soon because she's running out of opportunities to do so amazingly, because June 7th in Puerto Rico is going to be the last vote before we get to the convention. So she's got a much narrower window now than she did even if she had lost New Hampshire way back when on January 8th.

BROWN: All right, Chris, we're tracking all of your possible scenarios on Tuesday night. Thanks so much. Appreciate it. Good to see you.

CILLIZZA: Thank you, Campbell, good to see you.

BROWN: Hillary Clinton isn't the only presidential candidate with some problems tonight. Some comments by Barack Obama's pastor are raising concerns about the senator's relationship with the Jewish community.

John McCain's problem is on the right and right in front of talk radio microphones from coast to coast.

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN PRODUCER: This is Alex Marquardt with the Huckabee campaign. Governor Huckabee steps off the trail today to be at home in Little Rock, Arkansas, following two days of campaigning in Rhode Island and Ohio, states that have him far behind John McCain in the polls. Tomorrow, Huckabee heads to friendlier territory in Texas, the basket he has put most of his eggs in. He has told supporters in Texas that his future in the race depends on them turning out, and his schedule is packed with events over the next few days as he tries to get his message out ahead of Tuesday's primary.


BROWN: Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are going at each other like the general election campaign is already going strong. McCain ridiculed something that Obama said about Iraq during last night's Democratic debate, but Obama hit right back trying to tie McCain and the Iraq war to President Bush. Take a listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama made the statement that if Al Qaeda came back to Iraq after he withdraws, after the American troops are withdrawn, then he would send military troops back if Al Qaeda established a base in Iraq. I have some news. Al Qaeda is in Iraq. Al Qaeda -- it's called Al Qaeda in Iraq.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first of all, I do know that Al Qaeda is in Iraq and that's why I said we should continue to strike Al Qaeda targets. But I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.


BROWN: There is even more fallout from the debate tonight. Senator Barack Obama's handling of the debate question about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is still causing trouble. During last night's debate, Obama got hung up on the distinction of whether he is denouncing or rejecting Farrakhan's support. And now, there are more questions partly because of some controversial comments Obama's pastor made.

And Mary Snow is here with us now, and she has details on all of this -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Campbell, you know, as Obama denounced Farrakhan, he was also asked about -- at last night's debate about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright was pastor of Obama's church, the Trinity United Church of Christ. Obama has said he got the title for his book "The Audacity of Hope" from one of Wright's sermon.

Wright's no stranger to controversy. He once referred to Louis Farrakhan as someone who "epitomize greatness." Wright once even traveled to Libya with Farrakhan back in 1984. And last March, he told "The New York Times" that when Obama's opponents find out about that Libya trip, "a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell." Now, last night Obama was asked how he reassures Jewish-Americans. Here's how he answered.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this presidential campaign, and the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel.


SNOW: Now on Sunday, Obama held a meeting with Jewish leaders in Ohio that was close to the press, where he addressed a host of concerns, and as he does that, there was this release from Tennessee. "The Tennessee Republican Party today (this was back on Monday) joins a growing chorus of Americans concerned about the future of the nation of Israel, the only stable democracy in the Middle East, if Senator Barack Hussein Obama is elected president of the United States."

Now, the chairwoman of the Tennessee GOP was asked about that and she was quoted as defending the use of Obama's middle name. Senator John McCain earlier this week has said that it is inappropriate to use it. But, Campbell, you know, for the record, a Democratic group that keeps tabs on the candidates and their positions on Israel told us that Obama, Clinton and McCain all have similar pro Israel positions, and they feel that there is a lot of hype and a lot of fear tactics going on out there.

BROWN: All right. That's stuff we're going to be talking about a lot more, I'm sure. Mary, appreciate it.

SNOW: Sure.

BROWN: John McCain's treatment of a talk radio host is all the rage on the airwaves today, and there's a lot of rage involved. We're going to look at his problem on the right coming up.


BROWN: New polls show John McCain would have an edge over either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton but even so, conservative radio talk show hosts are not easing up on McCain. Joining me again to talk about all this, Ari Fleischer, Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Gloria Borger, from Washington. Welcome back, everybody.

Let's talk about the poll numbers. I know it's ridiculously early to be talking about general election poll numbers, but why not? This must be making you happy, Ari. Yes.

ARI FLEISCHER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY: Well, it is meaningful and that isn't bad in Republican environment. John McCain actually can do as well as he's doing, and it's really telling.


FLEISCHER: Because of independents. The big problem John McCain has, he got through it. He couldn't win without conservatives. He got just enough to squeak through and win a primary, but he has an appeal across the center. Presidential elections, Campbell, are always determined by the center. They cast the tie-breaking votes.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR & PUBLISHER, THE NATION: I think it's way too early. If this election has shown us anything, do not trust polls. I think this country deserves a big debate on whether we want to be a democracy or an empire. That debate will be a sharp one between John McCain and Barack Obama. If it is Barack Obama, do we want a president, John McCain, who wants us to stay in Iraq for 100 years when at the end of this year we'll be $800 billion as we head into a recession, which John McCain doesn't care that much about? It is an opportunity to rethink what security means and to take on a media, by the way, which has been way, it seems to me too kind to John McCain as the maverick straight talker. That "New York Times" piece stripped out the sex was on to something.

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, one of Barack Obama's lessons is that polemics is important and the words you choose are important. The notion of an empire? We're always a democracy. It's our greatest strength. We have tested now and that -- (CROSSTALK)

VANDEN HEUVEL: We have 800 bases, 800 bases ringing the world.

BROWN: OK. Let me bring Gloria into this.

VANDEN HEUVEL: We need to reconstruct our country.

BROWN: Gloria, well, let me ask you to address the issue of Iraq, because we heard a moment ago, we played the sound that sort of battle war of words between Barack Obama and John McCain today, over the war in Iraq. Is John McCain staking his presidency, his candidacy or his candidacy rather?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely, Campbell. He's, in fact, already staked his entire political career in Iraq. Not only for his support for the war in Iraq, but don't forget he was for the surge in Iraq before George W. Bush was for the surge. And what you're going to hear from McCain is real lines of distinction here. No matter who is the Democratic nominee, he's going to say that the Democrats want to surrender.

You heard that from him a little bit today. He's going to say that he believes the war was prosecuted badly. That he was the only Republican out there saying fire Donald Rumsfeld. However, he supported the surge. He supported the war, and he doesn't think we can leave too precipitously. And that's going to be the basis for this debate, particularly given what went on at the Democratic debate last night, which was, OK, how long do you stay? How do you withdraw?

BROWN: Right.

BORGER: Those are going to be the questions that McCain's going to want to handle and the Congress is going (INAUDIBLE).

BROWN: Is that to both of you -- is that a winning strategy, given the poll numbers, how people still feel about Iraq?

FLEISCHER: The issue is broader than that. It's not just Iraq or a surge. The issue is who do you trust to make America safe? That's what presidential elections often hinge on particularly in foreign policy errors like the one we're now back in. And that's a fair fight. Republicans have an uphill climb because of Iraq, but that's the broader issue. Barack Obama is wrong vulnerable on those issues.


VANDEN HEUVEL: I think -- I think the broader issue is this has been one of the greatest strategic blunders of U.S. foreign policy history. Who's going to repair U.S. interest and reputation in the world and define security as not only the military? We've seen the limits of military power in Iraq. Security means rebuilding our country and engaging in the world in new ways.

BROWN: OK. Let me change the subject here. I do want to ask you guys about this. This is the conservative talk radio war going on with John McCain. At a rally yesterday, radio host Bill Cunningham repeatedly referred to Barack Obama as a hack. He used his middle name Hussein. This is something that McCain quickly denounced in statements. But now, other talk radio hosts are coming to Cunningham's defense. Listen quickly to Rush Limbaugh.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Senator McCain should start pretending that liberal Democrats are conservative Republicans. And then he can cuss them out and throw them under his bus. If McCain was unhappy with what Cunningham said, there's a better way of dealing with this than to go out throw him under the bus this way. There's a better way of dealing with it.


BROWN: Does McCain still have a conservative problem?

FLEISCHER: Well, John McCain shouldn't have apologized. I don't think that was so outrageous. And after all -- after all how many --


BROWN: By using his middle name, I mean, why?

FLEISCHER: Did anybody criticize the Democrats when they called him George Herbert Walker Bush?


BROWN: Come on, Ari. Come on. Even I, I mean --

FLEISCHER: -- cut from a different cloth.

VANDEN HEUVEL: You know what's delicious (ph) --

FLEISCHER: But for John McCain to apologize for this?

VANDEN HEUVEL: What's delicious is to see Rush Limbaugh.

FLEISCHER: That's making politics too petty.

BROWN: That surprises me.

VANDEN HEUVEL: What's delicious to see Rush Limbaugh and his right wing talk radio hosts in a tizzy. This talk radio guy is very unstable. He went from supporting McCain to Hillary and then Ralph Nader in one minute. I think the key thing here is we're going to see a lot of surrogate smears in this campaign, and this is pre figure is one of the ugliest elections we may see.

I would simply add "The Nation" reported last month that John McCain is now taking money from a group he denounced in last election's Swift Boat Veterans, and I think that's very sad because he was a maverick who stood up when they denounced John Kerry because he respected the military and now it's --

BROWN: Gloria --

Sorry, guys. I know Gloria -- I'm coming back to you on health care, I promise, but we're out of time...



BROWN: ... on this topic.


BROWN: I appreciate you guys. Ari Fleischer...


BROWN: Katrina, good to see you.

Clinton and Obama spent 16 minutes parsing health care during last night's debate, so we are going to talk about it. It was so confusing, though, we decided we did need to do a fact check and that is coming up next.


BROWN: Last night, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent 16 minutes of their debate attacking each other on health care. But unless you're a political junky, it's hard to figure out just what their plans are, much less how they differ. For that we've asked CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen to check the facts.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Here's the big difference between their plans. Clinton wants to mandate to actually require every American to have health insurance. Obama, on the other hand, wants to make insurance more affordable but doesn't want to require everyone to have it. Clinton says Obama's idea would leave millions uninsured.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And Senator Obama's plan does not cover everyone. It would leave, give or take, 15 million people out.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: According to Senator Clinton, that is accurate. I dispute it, and I think it is inaccurate.

COHEN: So who's right here? Well, we read the fine print and asked the experts. And here's what we found out.

The Obama plan does leave about 15 million without insurance. That's according to an expert who says he's consulted for both Obama and Clinton. Another expert, who consults for Obama, says it's impossible to know how many people would be uninsured under Obama's solution. So what about Clinton's plan?

CLINTON: My plan will cover everyone, and it will be affordable.

COHEN: CNN asked experts. Is that possible to insure every American and make it work financially? This is what they told us.

The sticky wicked here, how will Clinton enforce this? How will she actually make everyone buy insurance? The plan on our Web site doesn't give details. If she can't enforce it, that could mean millions would go uninsured.

OBAMA: Senator Clinton has not indicated how she would enforce this mandate.

COHEN: And what about cost? What would it cost you to buy insurance under either plan? That's a huge question mark. Neither candidate has come up with premium costs. But each has estimated what their plan would cost the government. In other words, you, in taxes.

Obama, $50 to $65 billion. Clinton, $110 billion. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, there are so many moving parts when it comes to insuring an entire nation that if either candidate makes it to the White House, be prepared, a lot of details could change. Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Atlanta.


BROWN: Joining me once again, CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger. So, Gloria, is this really a debate over the merits of their various plans, or is something else going on? Is it political?

BORGER: Oh, I think it's political.


BORGER: Yes. I'm shocked.

Obviously, Campbell, as you well know, they both want to get to universal health care. There's no disagreement on that. But Hillary Clinton has made health care reform the pillar of this campaign. It's been the pillar of her political career. It is her most comfortable terrain and this is also an issue, by the way, that appeals to older women, and those are her mainstay right now.

So she wants to talk about health care. She did in the first 17 minutes of the debate yesterday because she feels that she can prove that she's better to deal with this issue, which her constituencies really care about.

BROWN: But having made it a cornerstone of her campaign, is it working...

BORGER: No, not so much.

BROWN: ... to just keep hammering away at it? BORGER: Right. And you know, not so much. She's hammered away at it as you well know at every single debate. She talks about it all the time. And I think what happens here is you get a lot of background noise and there is a sense, if you're a Democratic voter out there and you like both of these people, OK, both of them have the same general goal and we're talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When you get two experts to disagree, you know, nobody really wins on this one.

BROWN: All right. Gloria Borger, good to see you. Thanks very much.

BORGER: Good to see you.

BROWN: Appreciate it.

And at the top of the hour, the focus is on myths and breakthroughs on one of the most baffling of disorders -- autism.

Larry King speaks with Jason "J-Mac" McElwain, the autistic teen who inspired the world with his incredible shot making at a high school basketball game.


BROWN: That's it for tonight. The CNN ELECTION CENTER will be up and running all week as we countdown the CNN's coverage of the March 4th primaries six days for now. Thanks for joining us, everybody. And "LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.