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Candidates Battle Over Iraq Withdrawal; Government Agencies Hacked; Possible McCain Running Mate?

Aired February 27, 2008 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Also, the House of Representatives takes some dramatic action in the face of soaring oil prices. We're going to show you how profits and politics are colliding and how it's impacting the race for the White House.
And Barack Obama's pastor in the nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan. We'll show you why Barack Obama is being forced to address ties between the two men and how it could cost him some support.

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

It could be a glimpse of what we'll see in the general election this fall -- the Republican and Democratic candidates waging battle over the war in Iraq. Right now, they're both still candidates and not their party's nominees, but John McCain and Barack Obama are slamming each other's Iraq policies.

Listen to the barbs they traded on the campaign trail today, McCain in Texas, Obama in Ohio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand Senator Obama said that if al Qaeda established a base in Iraq that he would send troops back in militarily. Al Qaeda already has a base in Iraq. 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.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Some say Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are setting themselves up for trouble with their pledges to withdraw large numbers of U.S. troops from Iraq if they win the White House.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's watching this story for us.

So what are they saying? How could these pledges to start withdrawing brigades of troops within 60 days after their election, how could this come back to haunt them if, in fact, one of them were to become president?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the problem, Wolf, is what about the generals, what about the best military advice those generals will give the next president of the United States? Many commanders say the troops are tired and they do want to bring them home, but maybe not as fast as the Democrats want to.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two hundred meters.

STARR (voice-over): Bringing the 158,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq home is still a hot button issue for Democrats, as Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spar over who could be the best commander- in-chief.

OBAMA: As soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We will initiate a phased withdrawal.

STARR: Obama says he have all combat brigades out of Iraq in 16 months. Clinton has an even faster timetable.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But I would begin to withdrawal within 60 days based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president. And I think we can take out one to two brigades a month.

STARR: But will these promises stick after the election if a Democrat wins?

LT. GEN. DANIEL CHRISTMAN (RET.) U.S. ARMY: What happens when the president, he or she, sits down first day of office, meets with all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, every unified and specified commander, and they say please don't do this? I think this has enormous potential for a civil military crisis.

STARR: Top commanders already are strongly opposing a mandated time line for troop withdrawals. When CNN sat down with General David Petraeus in Baghdad, he made clear he won't be pushed into that corner.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. IRAQ COMMANDER: Again, as I mentioned earlier, conditions-based reductions are, from the point of view of the commander on the ground, the logical way to go.

LT. GEN. CARTER HAM, DIRECTOR OF OPPONENTS: To establish a firm timetable at this point is -- it would not be helpful.

ADM. WILLIAM FALLON, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: But the key thing here is to do several things simultaneously. First of all, to try and make sure we maintain the security and stability that's been so hardly fought for over the past year.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: You know, of course, Wolf, there is civilian control of the military in this country. A new president can order the troops out of Iraq at any time. The question may be whether a Democratic president -- if that is what happens -- wants to challenge the military right out of the gate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It sort of reminds me, Barbara -- and I know you'll remember this, as well -- back in 1993, January, when Bill Clinton became president, he had campaigned under the notion he was going to allow gays to serve openly in the U.S. military. But once he became president, he found a revolt from the generals and a lot of other troops in the -- at the Pentagon, where you are, including the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell.

And he was forced to back down. And he had got into that don't ask, don't tell compromise sort. So this could be a bigger problem on a huge scale if, in fact, it goes forward. Is that what you're hearing?

STARR: Well, you know, it's fascinating that you mention that example, Wolf, because General Christman, who is a very respected retired Army general that we spoke to you and you saw in the piece there, he mentioned that case himself and recalled it in great detail and the risk that was posed by that confrontation with the president and the joint chiefs. General Christman saying, really, the bottom line is the next president of the United States, if it is a Democrat, is going to have to sit down with the generals and work this out.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks for that good reporting.

It may have been their last debate, depending what happens in next Tuesday's primaries. So who won last night's Democratic presidential face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? The answer depends on who you ask, with the consensus being there was no clear winner. Hillary Clinton says, though, that's fine with her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H. CLINTON: I was really -- I was really pleased by it. I thought that, once again, we drew some good contrasts and obviously I was pleased to talk about issues that I both care a lot about and know something about and I thought that that came across.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... a lot of the pundits are saying that you didn't deliver any knockout punches and there was no sort of game changing moment. Do you disagree with that?

H. CLINTON: Yes, I do disagree with that. I mean, you know, that's a prize fight. That's not a debate. And, you know, I think that a lot of people watched it, would come away and, you know, feel very positive and comfortable about what I said and what I presented as my credentials and my positions on these issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We apologize for the poor quality of that audio. She was aboard a plane, though, as you could see.

He's a veteran Congressman and a civil rights leader. He's also a Democratic super-delegate. Now he's switching sides. John Lewis, the Congressman from Georgia, says he's now throwing his support behind Barack Obama, even though he earlier endorsed Hillary Clinton. That was back in October.

Congressman Lewis says it's because his Atlanta district strongly favored Obama in the Georgia primary. A Clinton spokesman tells CNN she respects Lewis' decision. No comment -- at least not yet -- from the Obama camp, although I assume they're thrilled about that.

Let's talk about it with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's watching this story for us.

She didn't necessarily get that huge bounce she needed last night. Instead, she woke up and got this decision from Congressman Lewis, which must be a huge disappointment.

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it's probably painful, very, now, in the Clinton campaign. He was a very strong endorser of theirs, very close to the Clintons personally. He says it's because that's the way his constituents voted. But there's clearly a larger issue here.

And it's the question of whether more and more of these super- delegates -- African-Americans in particular -- are going to start moving to Barack Obama's camp because they believe that he's going to be the likely nominee.

BLITZER: We now see the rhetoric heating up between Barack Obama and John McCain, this time specifically over the war in Iraq. Are we seeing a preview, potentially...

BORGER: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: ... of what might happen in the fall?

BORGER: Oh, oh, absolutely. You know, if you look back to the midterm elections in 2006, the midterm elections were about the war in Iraq. This Democratic campaign so far has been an awful lot about domestic policy. It started out about the war in Iraq.

But you're going to see the general election turn back to the question of the war in Iraq, because there is such a difference, not only between whoever the Democratic nominee is and John McCain, but also between voters in the two parties. The country is very divided on what the next steps are to take in the war.

And don't forget, John McCain staked his entire political career on that surge in Iraq and he's going to defend it. And the word you're going to hear from him a lot, Wolf, is "surrender." He's going to accuse the Democrats -- no matter who the nominee is -- he's going to accuse the Democrats of wanting to surrender in Iraq. And that is a very, very strong word.

BLITZER: And in these hypothetical match-ups, this latest "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg poll, we see it very, very competitive right now.

BORGER: Well, and it's always a problem for the Democrats -- national security. Are they strong enough on national security? It's always been their Achilles heel. We're just going to have to see what happens this time.

BLITZER: I write about that whole subject on my blog post, CNNpolitics.com.

BORGER: Great. I'll read it.

BLITZER: Gloria, see you later. Gloria is coming back with the best political team on television.

And for the latest political news any time, check out our political ticker at CNNpolitics.com. The Ticker is now the number one political news blog out on the Web. And, and, as I said, that's where you can read my latest blog post.

Let's bring back Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Four dollars a gallon -- maybe more. That's the dire prediction for gasoline prices by this spring. And in case you've lost your calendar, the first day of spring is a little over three weeks away.

Gas prices have lagged oil prices for months, but now it looks like they could soon be catching up. The price of crude spiked above $102 a barrel today for the first time ever. Diesel prices rising -- record highs almost every day now.

One Harvard economist says -- tells "New York Times" in an interview the effect of high oil prices today could be the difference between having a recession and not having a recession.

It's clear that higher gas and oil prices are just the latest bad news for our economy, which is being buffeted by a housing collapse, the credit crunch, rising inflation, a weakening dollar. Pick something you like. There's a lot of storm clouds brewing out there.

If people are forced to spend more on energy costs, then it follows they'll have less money to spend on other things. Economists say that in December, Americans were already spending more than 6 percent of their disposable income on energy. And that's the highest level since 1985. And if these predictions are right, it's going to go up.

Regular unleaded gasoline costs an average of $3.15 a gallon today. That's up from about $2.35 a gallon a year ago and represents a jump of 20 cents a gallon in just the last two weeks. And prices are now expected to accelerate from here.

So here's the question: How would gasoline prices of $4 a gallon or higher affect your life?

You can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog. When George Bush was sworn in as president, crude oil was $28 a barrel -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And now it's $101 or $102 or $100. It's a lot of money.

Jack, thanks very much for that. Jack will be back shortly.

The truce is off -- conservative radio talkers are once again blasting John McCain, with one saying to the candidate -- and I'm quoting now -- "I'm done with you." We're going to tell you why.

Also, the political battle over skyrocketing oil prices -- you're going to find out how it could impact the presidential campaign.

And foreign hackers are breaking into U.S. government computers. Now sources are telling us details of a new plan to beef up the country's cyber defenses.

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

(COMMERCIAL)

BLITZER: The truce between Republican John McCain and some conservative radio talk show hosts is off. The candidate is under fire for repudiating comments by an Ohio radio talk show host at a rally yesterday for attacking Barack Obama.

Listen to what that host is saying now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CUNNINGHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: And I'm saying now to John McCain, I'm done with you. I may not vote for Hillary, but I'm sure as hell not going to vote for Juan Pablo McCain, who wants to give amnesty to millions of illegals.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King. He's covering the story for us out in Cincinnati.

Is this likely to hurt John McCain -- this latest feud he's getting with this one radio talk show host in Cincinnati that may be spilling over?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question, Wolf. It's already hurting John McCain. We don't know the long-term impact. Two hundred and fifty days until the election in November. But John McCain was here yesterday. He wanted to talk about his view about the war in Iraq. He wanted to talk about his promise to keep taxes low. He wanted to criticize Obama and Clinton.

Instead, all the local media coverage was about this dust-up. All the national media coverage was about this dust-up with the talk show host Bill Cunningham. And we went to that talk show today. You heard Bill Cunningham. He says he will do this every day between now and the election -- criticize John McCain on issues like illegal immigration -- the issue with which John McCain is weakest among conservatives.

Rush Limbaugh mocking John McCain today for being involved in this controversy. So already short-term damage. We'll see how it play out in the long-term. But Republicans in Cincinnati say they need to find a way to at least bring about detente, if not peace.

BLITZER: So I guess you could say he might lose conservative support, but might that be offset by some moderates and Independents and maybe some Democrats who might be encouraged by what McCain did yesterday?

KING: That certainly is the calculation in the McCain campaign. They say they will not pander to the talk radio community and that if there is there's backlash from that community, maybe Independents will say this guy truly is a maverick, he truly is Independent. But if you talk to Republicans across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio, they say right now it's a dead heat.

And if you're going to win a 50/50 race in Ohio, you need to have a heavy turnout in Hamilton County, Southwest Ohio, in the Cincinnati area. And they say what you don't want, when you're trying to get that turnout is a prominent radio talk show host -- even a guy who is considered a little wacky by many of his own listeners -- criticizing McCain on the very issues that could get some conservatives to sit out.

So, we'll have to watch this, Wolf, in the months between now and election day. But it's not helpful in the short-term. We'll see how it plays out. The McCain camp is hoping that it proves him to be someone who's willing to buck the establishment. And maybe -- that helps with Independents.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thank you. John is going to be back later with the best political team on television.

Within just the last hour, the House of Representatives has approved $18 billion in new taxes on the country's largest oil companies. Soaring oil prices are a topic of fierce debate here in Washington and increasingly out on the campaign trail, as well.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us.

Brian, how partisan are the arguments that we're hearing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the example to best cite is the one you just cited, that House vote along mostly party lines there. Democrats overwhelmingly in favor of imposing more taxes on big oil, Republicans squarely against it.

This debate is something millions of American voters are paying attention to since it hits so many of them right in the wallet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Oil spiking at more than $100 a barrel, gas prices ticking up, too. Word on the street -- gas could hit $4 a gallon by the spring or summer. A popular villain -- big oil companies reaping record profits.

Deep in a political season, what better way for politicians to look good back home than to be seen as trying to do something about it. Now Democrats in the House want to roll back billions of dollars in tax breaks for big oil.

REP. STENY HOYER (D), MAJORITY LEADER: They don't need any incentive to look for new product. The incentive is the free market system, which is buying their product for the highest prices they've ever sold it.

TODD: Democrats want to use revenue from the oil company's higher taxes to pay for tax incentives to find alternative energy -- solar, wind, biodiesel. Republicans say that may hit taxpayers, too.

REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), TEXAS: If you look at wind, if you look at solar, if you look at any of the things that they're trying to promote, those all cost more to generate electricity than the current ways we do it with coal and natural gas and nuclear.

TODD: Republicans also argue if big oil companies are taxed more, they won't be able to turn as much of their profit toward looking for oil in harder to reach places. Then they won't be able to meet higher demand worldwide and American motorists will feel the pinch for that, too. Either way, it's a story that gets a lot of attention in car crazy America and politicians know full well consumer frustration could easily migrate from the pumps to the polls.

RICHARD RUBIN, "CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY": The Democrats see this as an opportunity to paint Republicans as the party of big oil. Republicans now have the ability to turn that a bit on their heads and say well, wait a minute. Since Democrat have taken control of Congress, you haven't done anything, either, to reverse the increases in oil and gasoline prices.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Analysts say politicians on both sides are trying to position themselves for a debate on gas prices in the fall, closer to the general election. But by then, who knows where gas prices will be? We could be in a recession and there may be bigger economic debate ahead for the candidates -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting.

Hillary Clinton is trying to portray him as the "no show chairman." But why didn't Barack Obama use his role on a key Senate foreign relations subcommittee to hold hearings on Afghanistan? We're doing a Fact Check.

And find out what's helping the euro soar to new record highs against the U.S. dollar.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Carol Costello is on assignment in Ohio for us. Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Fred, what's going on?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, Wolf. Well, life in prison -- that's the sentence handed down today to former Ohio police officer Bobby Cutts, Jr. Cutts was convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend and her unborn child.

He could have gotten the death penalty, but the judge took the jury's recommendation and sentenced him to life in prison instead. Cutts will not be eligible for parole for another 57 years, when he's 87.

Four Colombian politicians held hostage for more than six years are now free. Rebels from Colombia's armed leftist group, FARC, released them today in a deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It's the group's second hostage release this year -- a move intended to persuade the international community to take them off a list of terrorist organizations.

And Roger Clemens may be facing more questions about his alleged steroid use. Congress is asking the Justice Department to investigate whether the Major League pitcher lied during testimony before a House committee earlier this month.

During that testimony and in a sworn deposition, Clemens said he never used steroids or human growth hormone. That contradicts testimony from the player's former trainer and teammate, Andy Pettitte. Lawmakers say the contradictions warrant further investigation.

And even the king of pop, Michael Jackson, isn't immune from the mortgage crisis. The singer owes more than $24 million on his Neverland Ranch in Southern California and the property is scheduled to be auctioned off next month. But apparently Jackson isn't going to let that happen. A Jackson insider tells CNN the singer is taking out a new loan to keep the property off the auction block -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you. Fredricka Whitfield reporting.

Barack Obama could have held hearings on Afghanistan but he didn't. Now Hillary Clinton is charging it's because he was simply too busy running for president. We're going to have details of the new front in the battle between the two Democrats.

Also, ties between Barack Obama's pastor and the nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan. Will that cost Obama some support from American Jews? You're going to find out what Obama is saying about the controversy.

Plus, we'll show you what's being done to protect the country from a foreign cyber attack. Is it enough, though?

Jeanne Meserve watching this story right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, a record-breaking day for the euro. It hit an all time high against the U.S. dollar in European trading, peaking at nearly $1.51. European investors are responding to comments by the Federal Reserve that it may cut interest rates once again.

William F. Buckley, Jr. is dead. The legendary conservative columnist died this morning at his Connecticut home. The cause of death isn't known yet, but Buckley's assistant says he had been suffering from emphysema. Buckley was an author. He was the host of a long-running TV show, "Firing Line". But was perhaps best known for starting and editing the conservative magazine, the "National Review". William F. Buckley was 82-years-old.

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

Afghanistan is becoming an issue in the Democratic race for the White House, with Hillary Clinton now charging that Barack Obama failed -- failed in his role as chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee to hold hearings on the war there.

Let's turn to CNN's Jessica Yellin. She's watching this story for us.

Is this a potential problem for Barack Obama -- Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that really depends who you ask, Wolf. According to the Clinton campaign, they say that Obama has done, in their words, next to nothing to deal with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that he holds an important oversight position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): It's a pointed charge.

H. CLINTON: But I also have heard Senator Obama refer continually to Afghanistan. He's held not one substantive hearing to do oversight, to figure out what we can do to actually have a stronger presence with NATO in Afghanistan.

YELLIN: His explanation?

OBAMA: I became chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007. So it is true that we haven't had oversight hearings on Afghanistan.

YELLIN: Thirteen months ago, Senator Obama became chairman of a Senate subcommittee that allows him to hold hearings on what he considers a top foreign policy concern, Afghanistan.

OBAMA: The al Qaeda presence is stronger now.

YELLIN: But he didn't. Ambassador John Ritch, a veteran staff member on the committee, told salon.com this was a missed opportunity. The Clinton campaign goes further.

Today, accusing Obama of being too busy running for president. They point out Senator Clinton has chaired two policy hearings since she became a candidate. But not everyone agrees. Senator Chris Dodd, who endorsed Obama, sits on the same committee.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), FOREIGN RELATIONS CMTE.: Afghanistan ought to be the debate. Whether or not you were there for a subcommittee hearing or not I think is rather petty.

YELLIN: Obama's campaign points out the senator has visited Iraq and Afghanistan. And with Republican Richard Lugar, passed legislation to fight weapons proliferation but no doubt this issue will come up again, should Barack Obama face John McCain in the general election.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now Wolf, so far, Barack Obama has successfully argued that when it comes to national security, what matters for a commander in chief is good judgment, not how many hearings he or she has chaired. So far, that's worked in the primaries. What's unknown is how that argument might fare in a general election fight -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jessica, thanks very much.

The race for the White House has kept all of the three leading candidates from their day jobs. That would be in the U.S. Senate. To a large extent, Republican John McCain missed the most Senate votes last year, 267. That's more than 56 percent of the votes.

Democrat Barack Obama missed more than 188 votes, more than 39 percent. His rival, Hillary Clinton, missed 133 votes or 28 percent.

For more on Obama's failure to hold hearings on Afghanistan and other subjects, let's get to our discussion. We are joined by our political contributor, Paul Begala. He's a Democratic strategist and he's a Hillary Clinton supporter and from Dallas, joining us, the city's former mayor, Ron Kirk. He is backing Barack Obama.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.

Mayor Kirk, what do you think about Barack Obama? He's chairman of the subcommittee on Europe. They could have held hearings on NATO's involvement in Afghanistan but he basically did nothing as chairman. How much of a problem is this?

RON KIRK, FORMER DALLAS MAYOR: I don't think it's going to be a problem at all, because voters are concerned more about the direction and the judgment that we are going to exercise going forward than some of the misjudgments that might have been made that got us into a war that a lot of people think we shouldn't have gotten into in terms of Iraq. The senator has been clear that his resolve is strong to continue to fight terrorism and continue to fight it in Afghanistan, but I think at this stage in the game, at least as it relates to the primary coming up on Tuesday, it's a non-factor.

BLITZER: What do you think, Paul?

PAUL BEGALA, POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I have to say. I love Ron Kirk. He's a fellow Texas longhorn, one of the greatest mayors Dallas ever had, but he did not miss a lot of meetings in the city council in Dallas. He was running that city. It's the reason he was so successful as a mayor.

The war in Afghanistan is not going as well as it should be, principally because the Bush administration doesn't know what the heck they're doing. Oversight means these hearings that Barack should have been holding means holding the Bush administration's feet to the fire. Do we have enough troops in Afghanistan? No. Do we have enough intelligence assets? No. Do we have the right strategy to roll back the Taliban? No.

I mean, you know, all of us lived through September 11th. That happened in part because the Bush administration was ignoring the Taliban, which was using Afghanistan as a launching ground for al Qaeda. The notion that we've turned a blind eye to this is George Bush's fault, but it's also now Barack's fault for not holding his feet to the fire. Even Barack admitted he didn't hold a hearing.

BLITZER: Mayor, want to respond to that?

KIRK: Paul, I love you, too, and we want to welcome you back to Austin and UT anytime, but that's -- that would take a real leap of faith to argue the failures in Afghanistan relate to a freshman senator not having hearings or not.

The real difficulty in Afghanistan is the fact that we have wasted so much time and capital in Iraq in a war that never should have been authorized in the first place and one in which Senator Clinton voted for. But even beyond the war, I think most Americans now have come to grips with the fact that the prosecution of this war has been a dismal failure by this administration.

What they want to know now is can we elect a leader that will lower the volume, change the political discourse in Washington, so that we can make better decisions. The reason that Barack Obama is poised to win this Democratic nomination in Texas is that he presents just that kind of candidate.

BLITZER: How worried, Paul, are you as a Democratic strategist? You support Hillary Clinton. You're still a Democrat, though, about these hypothetical polls, the "L.A. Times"/Bloomberg poll, which show McCain narrowly beating both of them in a general election? How worried should the Democrats be taking a look at this hypothetical match up?

BEGALA: Well, you know, to paraphrase George W. Bush, nobody should misunderestimate John McCain. He's a very formidable guy. Frankly, it's in part because he's been able to position himself, I think falsely, as a reformer, when in fact his campaign is being run by lobbyists as independents.

When in fact, he votes with Bush 90 percent of the time, and it would be a third term for President Bush both continuing the Bush war at enormous cost to the economy and continuing the Bush tax cuts. So I think Democrats have their work cut out for them because with the record McCain has, he ought to be at 30 percent, which is where Bush is, not tied with Obama or Clinton.

BLITZER: Mayor Kirk, you see that they're fighting Obama and McCain on the campaign trail today over the war in Iraq. McCain responding forcefully to what Obama said last night about al Qaeda in Iraq, that if necessary, he might go back in to go after al Qaeda and McCain suggesting you know what, they're there already, don't you know that, basically trying to ridicule Barack Obama's stance. How worried are you about that hypothetical match up?

KIRK: You know, what I'm most worried about is the fact that what I'm most focused on is the fact that we in Texas, for the first time in a long time in the Democratic primary, have a relevant voice in the picking of our nominee. And that I'm more concerned about making sure that we make Barack Obama the Democratic nominee, then he'll have plenty of time to draw the type of distinctions between his record, his vision, and his promise than that of John McCain. And Paul did highlight a lot of the challenges that I think --

BLITZER: Are you sure --

KIRK: Senator McCain has to overcome.

BLITZER: Are you sure, Mayor, Barack Obama is going to carry, going to win the Democratic vote next Tuesday in Texas?

KIRK: Wolf, we're not sure of anything. I'll steal Paul's words. We're not going to misunderestimate the Clintons' resolve. They are fighting very hard. But I can tell you, Texans have culled Obama favor.

We are tired of the status quo, the back biting, the partisanship, and want a change in the tenor and direction for this country and in this state. But every day, more and more Texans are coming to the conclusion that Barack Obama is best poised to deliver that change.

BLITZER: We just heard the chairman of the Clinton campaign, Terry McAuliffe say, Paul, that he still thinks it's possible that so- called dream team ticket, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the same ticket, unclear who would be number one or number two, that that's still viable out there, would energize the Democratic base.

What do you think? Is that dream ticket still a possibility?

BEGALA: You know, the debate that you hosted at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles was one of the really more magical moments I have ever seen in Democratic politics. Here are two of the very brightest, most articulate, most principled people in the Democratic Party. They're going at it but it's largely a fair fight. No one is calling the other's mom ugly or anything. It's a fair fight about issues. I would love to see them come together.

The most important question to ask is the question I know Bill Clinton asked before he chose Al Gore, because he told me. The question is god forbid I should die, who should run the country? As a Democrat, I would be happy with either Barack Obama or my preference, Hillary Clinton, as my president so why not get two.

BLITZER: What about you, Mayor?

KIRK: I would love nothing more than Barack Obama to have to mull over whether he wants to have Hillary Clinton or someone else as vice president. I am singularly focused in making sure that that is one of the most pleasant choices that Barack Obama has to make.

BLITZER: All right. We will leave it right there.

BEGALA: He may need to pick Ron Kirk. Put him on the short list.

KIRK: That isn't going to happen. But thanks.

BLITZER: I don't think he's going to pick Paul Begala either.

BEGALA: Hillary will probably pick Ron. I will call Hillary right now.

BLITZER: All right. Give her a call. Thanks, guys, very much.

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

KIRK: Thank you.

The IRS is investigating the United Church of Christ after Barack Obama, who's a member of the church, spoke at its national convention last year. Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, watching this story.

What's the basis, Abbi, of this investigation?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's this speech right here, Senator Barack Obama speaking to 10,000 fellow members of the United Church of Christ at their convention. He talked about his faith. He touched on Iraq and health care and received standing ovations.

It's posted on the church's Web site which is where the IRS now points in informing the United Church of Christ that they're launching a tax inquiry into alleged political activities.

Tax exempt organizations like churches must not participate in a political campaign. But the church says we weren't doing that, that Barack Obama was there as a member of the church, not as a candidate, and that they invited him before he was even running.

The Barack Obama campaign said that Senator Obama took time off from campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire to attend this event. The church is preparing a response to the IRS. The IRS had no comment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Abbi, for that.

You've heard of people stealing information from personal computers but it's a lot more serious when it happens to the United States government. We have some brand new information, very disturbing information, about a major threat to America's defenses.

Get this, more than 80,000 attacks against the Department of Defense alone. Why it matters to you. That's coming up next, Jeanne Meserve working the story.

And prices at the pump are going up. We all know that. So are the profits for the big oil companies. We know that as well. Congress, though, is now decided to step in. Is it a political move? Will it work? You be the judge.

That's coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Hacking into government computers and getting a hold of secret information. Spies and freelance hackers try to do that every single day. In fact, they do it all day long and many of them actually succeed.

Let's get some details what the government is trying to do to secure its own network. our Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jeanne, what's the plan to battle these hackers out there?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me tell you. This is a major problem, first of all. According to some experts, every single major U.S. government agency has been penetrated by foreign hackers. The government is now mobilizing to stop intrusions into government computer systems and fight back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: The United States has spent untold billions to protect itself from physical attack. But when it comes to cyber attack, our defenses are weak.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Do you think we're currently prepared to deal with these threats on both civil and military sides?

MICHAEL MCCONNELL, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Sir, we're certainly not prepared to deal with it.

MESERVE: Yet it is happening every day, intruders entering government computer systems, vacuuming out data, leaving spyware behind. Last year, more than 37,000 attacks were reported against government and private systems, many of them originating in China.

ALLAN PALLER, SANS INSTITUTE: It's just stupid not to say national security's at stake.

MESERVE: In January, President Bush signed a presidential directive ordering a new initiative on cyber security, the existence of the document is known but the contents are classified. Sources with knowledge of the initiative say it will sharply reduce the number of points of connection between government computer systems and the Internet to give hackers fewer points of entry and make intrusion detection easier.

Government agencies will be required to report attacks quickly so the department of homeland security can synthesize the information and distribute it government-wide. Sources say it's not clear who's in charge of the initiative, how defense industry, critical infrastructure and state and local governments might also be secured against attacks and what privacy and civil liberties concerns will arise.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: The first open congressional hearing on the initiative will be held tomorrow. Because it is so sensitive, one part of the program will not be discussed, how the U.S. is on the offense in cyberspace. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jeanne, thanks for that report. Jeanne Meserve reporting.

The news about gas prices isn't good for anyone on a budget. Jack Cafferty's asking this question. How would gas prices of $4 a gallon or more affect your life? Your e-mail and the Cafferty file coming up.

And it's the part of the debate a lot of people are talking about. Hillary Clinton becoming tongue-tied trying to say a Russian name. She's not the only one. You will hear for yourself.

That's coming up later right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERICAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Check back with Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: How would gas prices of $4 a gallon or higher affect your life. There are predictions now gas is going to pass $4 a gallon sometime this spring.

Jack writes from Fort Myers, Florida: "I'd no longer be able to commute to work five or six days a week. It would mean leaving my very nice city home for a condo and a job that is near public transportation access, which would definitely pay much less. And that would allow me to manage my finances for the next 12 years before I retire."

R. writes: "It will effect us drastically. We have an RV that's become a guest house. We live in a rural setting so everything is at least 10 miles to town. This year, we paid $600 in public school bus passes because the state budget doesn't include increased gas prices and the district had to make up the money somewhere. We've got five nephews we're raising. That's for only three of them. Home schooling is looking like a better option all the time as a public school is being priced out of our budget."

Barbara writes: "If the gas price goes to $4, looks like we'll starve to death trying to drive to the grocery store. We're on a fixed income. We barely make it now."

Mike says: "The more relevant question is how many more billions of dollars do you think the oil companies are going to make in obscene profits?"

Liz in Massachusetts: "We are already driving 50 percent fewer miles at current rates, heating 40 percent less of the time, rarely eating out, and our grocery budget has gone from $120 a week to $120. At $4 a gallon it will force us to walk, ride our bikes more, never eat out and cut our grocery budget by another $20. In short, we will get skinny."

John says: "As of right now, I can't afford a car so I'm relying on mass transit. As soon as -- soon I'll have a bicycle on the road. Once I do get a car, gas prices will probably keep me from being able to use it. If it's not one thing, it's usually another and frequently it's more than one at a time."

I know what you mean, John.

And Brian writes from South Carolina: "I'm going the redesign my car's engine to run on milk. It's cheaper" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, see you in a few moments. Thanks very much.

John McCain and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, they are powerful political allies who could make a powerful political team on the same ticket. That's what some people are suggesting. Our John Zarrella talked about the running mate question and is joining us live from Miami.

All this talk about Crist being on the McCain ticket, how serious are people taking that?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're taking it pretty serious here in Florida, Wolf. In nearly every conversation, Charlie Crist's name comes up and he is very quickly becoming a serious player in the Republican Party.

I sat down with him yesterday in Tallahassee to talk about his future plans.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZARRELLA: He calls himself the people's governor and with near 70 percent approval ratings, Charlie Crist can. The 51-year-old white- haired Florida governor has gone after insurance companies over high rates, engineered the passage of a property tax reduction amendment, preached going green right down to solar heating his own swimming pool.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R), FLORIDA: I just about convinced my father in St. Petersburg to do the same thing.

ZARRELLA: And now Crist, only one year into his first term, he could be on John McCain's short list for vice president. If you were asked, what would you say?

CRIST: I've got to continue to work hard as the governor of Florida and I haven't been asked. It's really kind of moot at this point.

ZARRELLA: Clearly he's in play. Few people have been more instrumental in getting McCain to the threshold of the Republican Party nomination. Days before the Florida primary, McCain was in a dead heat with Mitt Romney and losing ground. Crist, against the advice of some advisers, endorsed the senator.

CRIST: I did receive advice all over the map like anybody does in life. I'm sure. But you know, my conclusion was this is a great man. He's been a great leader. He's a true American patriot. I think the world might just like the guy, frankly.

ZARRELLA: He campaigned with McCain for three days.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Say hi to the governor. Maybe he will pardon you some day.

ZARRELLA: McCain won by five points, instantly becoming the front-runner.

CRIST: In some small way, an endorsement helps him along the way, so be it.

ZARRELLA: Crist critics say the governor is too centrist. He's too much like McCain to help much outside of Florida. But even an Obama superdelegate says a Crist vice presidency would virtually give the nomination to Florida.

ALLAN KATZ, OBAMA SUPERDELEGATE: I think what happens is that if Charlie Crist is on the ticket, it may well take Florida out of play. That's not my decision to make. If you start looking at things, OK, do I have to spend $30 million here or do I want to spend $30 million in Ohio?

ZARRELLA: On the ticket or not, the man who calls himself the people's governor says come November, he will deliver the people of Florida for McCain.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZARRELLA: He was clearly getting annoyed with me after about three or four times that I tried different ways to get him to tell us a little bit more about where things stood with this vice presidency but you know, he never said he wasn't interested. So we'll leave it at that.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, John Zarrella down in Miami.

Lou Dobbs is standing by live. We will be talking to him.

We will have the latest on Barack Obama's efforts to defuse a controversy over ties between his pastor and the nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan.

Plus, details of John McCain's new problem with some conservative radio talk show hosts. You will find out why one host says, quoting now, I'm done with you.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Bring in Lou Dobbs, he's got a show coming up in one hour. I want to pick his brain on that debate last night.

What did you think of that Democratic presidential debate, Lou?

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Put it this way. Brian Williams and Tim Russert could take a few lessons in my humble opinion from Wolf Blitzer, and Anderson Cooper. The idea that that was a debate, that was pitty-patter.

But we did learn something in a couple places. One is we had a pop quiz for Senator Clinton from Tim Russert on who is the president of Russia and we didn't have such a pop quiz for Senator Obama.

We found out a man has been talking a lot about war in Iraq and Afghanistan hasn't even held an oversight committee meeting and he's the chairman of that committee. Absolutely inexplicable why the national news organizations in this country have not been focusing on that.

BLITZER: A lot of people suggesting that the debate was favored for Obama and skewed against Hillary Clinton. Do you agree with that criticism?

DOBBS: Absolutely, 100 percent. I have the greatest respect for Brian Williams and Tim Russert but that was - there was nothing fair about the way that was constructed.

By the way, I blame Senator Clinton for not calling them on it right then and there. A leader of this country and she wants to be the leader of this nation, cannot tolerate that kind of nonsense.

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs, speaking bluntly as he always does, getting ready for his excellent show that begins in one hour. Lou, we'll talk later. Thank you.

DOBBS: Look forward to it. Thanks, Wolf.

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