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Senator Chris Dodd on Democratic Fight for White House; Texas and Ohio Crucial For Clinton Campaign; President Bush Appears Unaware of Ever Increasing Gas Prices

Aired February 28, 2008 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, Texas brushfires. Hillary Clinton rejects a supporter's slap at Barack Obama, but the incident is spotlighting some racial and ethnics tensions.

Also coming up, two against one. John McCain and President Bush take on Barack Obama on his views on foreign policy.

And New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, just saying no to a White House bid. What does that mean for the independent voters in the general election? The best political team on television standing by.

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

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

For the presidential candidates, Texas and Ohio are the centers of the political universe right now five days before crucial primaries there. The best political team on television is out in force today in the key battlegrounds. Carol Costello, John King and Candy Crowley, they're in Ohio. Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, Jessica Yellin, they're in Texas.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

Candy, what's happening on the Democratic front today?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, on the Democratic front, both candidates really want to be steady as she goes. The last thing you want in the final days of a campaign is for a brushfire to come up that might turn into something larger. Today, both Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, had a little bit of problem.


CROWLEY (voice over): Working river towns along the Ohio/West Virginia border, Hillary Clinton is all business with a plan to cut child poverty in half by 2020. She is trying to focus voters on the stakes, opting for small venues to talk big problems. SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The issues that get you up in the morning or keep you up late at night worrying about, you know, how are you going to make ends meet? What is going to happen if you can't afford to send that son or daughter to college? You know, what about those mortgage payments?

CROWLEY: Just days for the Texas and Ohio primaries that could end or revitalize her campaign, Clinton does not need the kind of brushfire set off by a high-profile Latina supporter who told a Texas television station Obama has a problem with the Latino community because he's black.

ADELFA CALLEJO, HISPANIC ACTIVIST: When the blacks had the numbers, they never did anything to support us. They always talked -- used our numbers to fulfill their goals and their objectives. But they never really supported us, and there's a lot of hurt feelings about that.

CROWLEY: Clinton originally declined to condemn the remark, but her campaign said after seeing the comments in full, she denounces and rejects them. It is wording used at a recent debate when Clinton and Barack Obama sparred over words from his controversial supporter, Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan.

Putting out a brushfire of their own, Obamaville doused a report that an Obama official told Canadian officials that Obama doesn't mean his anti-NAFTA talk. A conversation denied by the campaign and the Canadian government.

Playing to his signature large crowds, Obama has front-runner aura. His sights set on targets beyond the primaries, trying to tie McCain's fortunes to George W. Bush.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are not standing on the brink of recession because of forces out of our control. I think that's very important to understand. This was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership in Washington.

CROWLEY: In a battle on another front, the Clinton campaign says it raised $35 million this month, a princely sum. The Obama campaign, with no details, says its number is higher.


CROWLEY: That $35 million for Clinton is twice as much as she raised in January. And it has buoyed the Clinton campaign which continues to believe it can win both Texas and Ohio. Certainly, it must win.

But at the Obama camp, they say that no matter what happens on Tuesday, they believe they will come out of that day with more pledged delegates -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Candy, thanks very much -- Candy Crowley reporting. Republican John McCain is drawing new lines in the sand for Democrats in Texas today. But the likely GOP candidate can't afford to forget that he hasn't clinched it yet.

Dana Bash. She is in Houston watching this story for us.

He seems to be doing a Texas two-step today, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He does. You know, the McCain campaign, Wolf, is trying to find its footing between the world of fighting fellow Republicans and the world of battling Democrats. And today, John McCain got some help from a Texas Republican who's also helped five Republican presidential candidates.


BASH (voice over): An endorsement from a veteran of Ronald Reagan's White House, John McCain's latest attempt to convince skeptical conservatives he's one of them.

JAMES BAKER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Like The Gipper, John McCain knows that sometimes it's better to take 80 percent of what you want, rather than go over the cliff with your flag flying.

BASH: James Baker labeled McCain a principled pragmatist. But the candidate's political pragmatism was on display. McCain knows the debate with Democrats over Iraq will be his biggest challenge, and keeps looking for a head start.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A decision to unilaterally withdrawal from Iraq and set a date for withdrawal will lead to chaos.

BASH: Both at this Texas stop and earlier at the Baker Institute of Foreign Policy, McCain kept his long distance verbal volley with Barack Obama going.

MCCAIN: Yesterday Senator Obama said, well, we shouldn't have gone in the first place. And if we hadn't gone in the first place, we wouldn't be facing this problem. Well, that's history. That's the past. That's talking about what happened before. What we should be talking about is what we're going to do now.

BASH: For McCain, that means stay the course.

MCCAIN: Continue the strategy, which is succeeding in Iraq. And we are carrying out the goals of the surge. The Iraqi military are taking over more and more responsibilities.

BASH: The likely GOP nominee also jumped into the Democrats' slugfest over NAFTA. They're fighting over who is really against the agreement. McCain called himself a free trader, very much for it. Another convenient dividing line.

MCCAIN: I believe in free trade. And I think that that may be one of the many differences between myself and whoever the nominee of the Democratic Party is.


BASH: Today's campaign day here in Texas was a vivid illustration of John McCain in transition, Wolf. He's a little bit nervous about Mike Huckabee doing well in the primary here in the Lone Star State next Tuesday. It's a very conservative state, obviously, but, for the most part, he's really trying to test-drive his message, his attack lines, against the Democratic rival for the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, thank you.

President Bush today confronted a top issue in the race to replace him, the economy. In a wide-ranging White House news conference, Mr. Bush put the best face possible on the economic downturn. And he seemed surprised by some dire predictions about soaring gas prices.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think we're headed to a recession. There's no question we're in a slowdown.

QUESTION: What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing...

BUSH: Wait a minute. What did you just say? You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?

QUESTION: A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline this spring when they reformulate.

BUSH: That's interesting. I hadn't heard that.

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

BUSH: I know it's high now.


BLITZER: The president also said Congress should acknowledge progress being made in Iraq and give troops the funds they need to succeed. He also urged House leaders to give telecommunications companies the legal immunity for helping the government eavesdrop on terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks. And he asked Congress to quickly pass legislation to help homeowners avoid foreclosure without bailing out lenders.

Coming up, the best political team on television takes a closer look at the president's take on the economy and on Barack Obama.

Let's go back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" in New York -- Jack. JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Here's something you might not know about John McCain. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936. His dad was stationed there serving in the Navy.

"The New York Times" reports the circumstances surrounding McCain's birth raise questions about his eligibility to become president since our founding fathers specifically said only a -- quote -- "natural-born citizen" -- unquote -- can hold the highest office in the land. The idea, of course, was to prevent foreigners from becoming president of the United States.

There's no precedent for McCain. No U.S. president has ever been born outside the 50 states, but McCain's campaign says they're confident that he meets the requirements, that they researched the same question during his last run in 2000 and that this time around as well, they have looked into it and have asked the former solicitor general, Theodore Olson, to prepare a legal opinion.

McCain supporter Senator Lindsey Graham says it would be incomprehensive if the son of a military officer born on a military installation couldn't run for president. Graham says it would mean telling every military family their child couldn't grow up to become president if they were born overseas.

There's been a lot of Internet buzz about this topic in recent months. Some insist that McCain is ineligible. According to lawyers who have studied this stuff, there's confusion not just over the provision itself, but also over who would have the legal authority to challenge a candidate on this very point.

So, here's the question: John McCain was born outside the United States. Should that affect his eligibility to be president? Go to Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that. Good question.

On and on they go. Where it stops could hurt the Democrats.


SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: If this goes on as a fight into August, I don't need to tell you -- you know enough about political history -- that would not portend well for the fall campaign.


BLITZER: A former president presidential candidate says of the remaining Democratic candidates, somebody has to give in soon. Senator Chris Dodd, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM to explain why.

Also, should the next president meet with rogue leaders, as many are calling them, or spurn them?

And imagine you're in a shopping plaza and it simply explodes. That's what happened near Chicago. And now crews are digging through the debris looking for anyone trapped inside. We will have the latest right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: President Bush gave John McCain an assist today in questioning Barack Obama's foreign policy views. Over at his news conference, the president rejected talking to the leaders of Iran and Cuba, an idea Obama has embraced.


BUSH: The decisions of the U.S. president to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive. It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies. It can send confusion about our foreign policy. It discourages reformers inside their own country.


BLITZER: Joining us now, Senator, former presidential candidate, and Obama supporter Chris Dodd of Connecticut. We should note that yesterday we spoke to Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Thanks very much, Senator, for coming in.

DODD: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, what do you think of the criticism that's not only being leveled by the president, but by John McCain and Hillary Clinton, that these kinds of meetings with what a lot of people would regard as tyrants, whether Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il, or Raul Castro, Hugo Chavez, that you need preparation, a president cannot simply go in without preconditions and talk to them?

DODD: Well, Wolf, I listened the other night in the debate where Barack Obama used the very word you just used, preparation. And that's the smart word to use. And I believe that's what he's talking about here. He's not going to walk into the office and get a in a plane and fly to Havana or fly to Tehran and have initial conversations. There are preparations involved.

The fundamental point here, and I find it somewhat ironic with the president talking this way, his failure was not talking to anybody. I mean, I recall a year or so ago, when I went to Syria, the call came out, we don't want anyone talking to Assad. Then you listen to someone like Jim Baker, the former secretary of state under this president's father, talk about how important it is that we engage here.

You cannot walk away. He talked about 15 different meetings he had with Assad before he could get something done. I think of Richard Nixon here. If this mentality you just heard expressed the president had prevailed, who could have been more of a tyrant in many ways than Mao Tse-tung?

BLITZER: Yes, but before that meeting between Richard Nixon and the Chinese leader took place, there was ping-pong diplomacy. There was a lot of advance work, a lot of meetings at much lower levels before they set the stage for that high-level presidential encounter.

DODD: And that's the word that Barack Obama used the other evening, preparation. And so I think a lot more is being made of this than should be the case. I think the alternative is not talking to people. we have been through that.

When this president refused to pick up the phone and talk to the prime minister of Israel or the prime minister of Lebanon for more than 30 days during the war in southern Lebanon, that kind of diplomacy has got to be over with. We need a president who's willing to engage these issues, and preparation is the word that Barack Obama used. That's the operative word. And I think his approach makes a lot of sense.

BLITZER: What about Hillary Clinton? You had a tough choice...

DODD: Yes, I did.

BLITZER: ... between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. You're friends with both of them. you have known her and her husband obviously for a long time. Why not Hillary Clinton?

DODD: Well, it wasn't about why not Hillary. And I know people look at these things and say you're choosing one over the other. I really believe having spent more than a year on the trail, in countless forums and debates, I got to watch obviously Barack Obama over the years.

We serve on two committees together here, Wolf, on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Labor Committee. I got to see him up close and in a very personal way in that debate. And I believe that he's touched a responsive chord in the country that you and I haven't seen in a long time. And I don't think that's inconsequential.

I think for the first time in 25 years, instead of hearing just about Reagan Democrats, I'm hearing about Obama Republicans. Independents and Republicans who are as attracted to this candidacy of Barack Obama as many Democrats are. That's a unique opportunity not just for a political party, which may be important, but more importantly for the country.

We are desperate. I have said to Barack Obama, you're getting 18,000 people showing up at the Hartford Civic Center not because they just want to see you. They want you to hear them as well. And that's what a lot of this is about. Americans are desperate for this country to come together again.

I think Barack Obama offers us that opportunity. The last thing is a rejection of my friend Hillary Clinton. I admire and respect her immensely. I just think at this moment Barack Obama offers the opportunity to get elected, and then to lead our country in unique and different ways that Americans are looking for.

BLITZER: Your fellow Connecticut senator, Joe Lieberman, has picked John McCain, a man you know quite well. you have worked together with McCain for many years. Can Barack Obama go head-to-head with John McCain when it comes to national security issues?

DODD: Absolutely. I mean, I think that's a question -- national security involves many different things. Certainly there's great respect for John McCain. And you're right, I have worked with John over the years. And obviously all of us revere the contribution John McCain has made to our country. The time he spent in solitary in the Hanoi Hilton is embedded in our minds in very strong ways.

But this is the presidency of the United States. Security depends not only on having a knowledge of our military, but also the security of our economy, the position of our country as it relates to other nations around the world.

And I think Barack Obama brings a unique candidacy that encompasses all of that. Not just a knowledge of the military, but also a knowledge of these other issues that I think is going to make him a strong candidate. More importantly, a great president as well.

BLITZER: No matter what happens on Tuesday -- you have got Rhode Island, Vermont, Ohio and Texas -- given the way the Democrats divide up delegates and the superdelegates, it's -- no matter who wins, it's still going to be relatively close in terms of the delegate count.

Would it make sense from your perspective, from the party's perspective, to let this thing continue to April 22 in Pennsylvania? Or should it just end after Tuesday, if, for example, Hillary Clinton were to lose either Ohio or Texas?

DODD: Well, I think the worst thing I could do at this moment would be telling people what they ought to do with their campaigns. I know how I felt about it when people were sort of advising me what to do at critical moments.

My hope would be that we come together. I'm worried, Wolf, about the divisiveness of this campaign. It's gotten ugly in the last week or so. And it needs to get back on track. Obviously, if this goes on as a fight into August, I don't need to tell you -- you know enough about political history -- that would not portend well for the fall campaign.

So my hope is this will come to closure sooner rather than later. If you end up with divided results or some other outcome on Tuesday, then this could go on. If it doesn't, then I think it's time for us really to rally around a candidacy, and I believe that candidacy to be Barack Obama's.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Dodd, thanks for coming in.

DODD: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's an independent love affair. Courting uncommitted voters might sway this race. We're going to talk about that, as an independent politician announced his decision about a presidential run. And the Air Force doesn't want any more embarrassing problems like one last year, nuclear missiles mistakenly over the skies of our towns and cities. The Air Force doing something to make sure that doesn't happen again.

Much more coming -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: In midair today, taking questions from reporters, Barack Obama refused to take say the Democratic presidential ready is anything but up in the air.


QUESTION: Everyone is writing the obituary of the Clinton campaign.

OBAMA: Well, I am not. I am not. Remember New Hampshire.


BLITZER: Coming up, will Hillary Clinton's campaign live or die after March 4th? It's a race that is up in the air right now. And race could play a role.

Also ahead, many independent voters may be looking for a candidate now that Michael Bloomberg is ruling out a run. Who might they turn to? I will ask the best political team on television.

And John McCain tries to set the record straight about his 100 years in Iraq statement.

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


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

Happening now, racially-tinged remarks grab the spotlight in Texas, as Hillary Clinton battles Barack Obama for a state even her campaign says she must win. You're going to find out what was said and why Clinton is distancing herself from it.

Also, New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, says, once and for all, he's not running for president. So who's left for independent voters?

And President Bush putting the best face possible on the economy, contrary to what many Americans think. Is he out of touch, though?

All of this, plus the best political team on television.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. A Texas-sized dustup is rocking the Democratic race for the White House. The Clinton and Obama camps are caught up in a new controversy over racially charged remarks.

Let's turn to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux. She's watching the story for us.

Suzanne, what is this all about?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is about two very important groups to both of the candidates, the Hispanic voters, as well as the African-American voters.

If you look at those numbers back in 2004, about 37 percent of the Democratic primary voters were Hispanic, about 20 percent African- American. It is pretty much becoming about even now. And both of these candidates are looking for ways to really make inroads with these particular groups.

There was a comment that was made by a Hispanic activist today that really kind of revealed some realities here, some misperceptions, and some tensions between these two groups.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): In Texas, where black and Hispanic voters are critical to a big win, a dustup. A prominent Hispanic supporter of Senator Clinton hurls a loaded charge, that Obama's problem with Hispanics, his race.

CALLEJO: Obama simply has the problem that happens to be black.

MALVEAUX: The 84-year-old Latina activist, Ms. Adelfa Callejo, says the divisions between blacks and Latinos run deep in Dallas.

CALLEJO: When the blacks were -- had the numbers, they never did anything to support us. They always talked -- they used our numbers to fulfill their goals and their objectives, but they never really supported us. And there's a lot of hurt feelings about that. And I don't think we're going to get over it any time soon.

MALVEAUX: Before being fully briefed about Cajello's comments, Senator Clinton was asked if she rejected or denounced the leader's support.

CLINTON: People have every reason to express their opinions. I just don't agree with that.

MALVEAUX: But later, after Clinton's campaign verified the details, they issued a statement saying after confirming that they were accurately portrayed, Senator Clinton, of course, denounces and rejects them.

OBAMA: And I would reject and denounce...

MALVEAUX: Those words -- denounces and rejects -- were used by Senator Barack Obama in Tuesday night's debate when he tried to distant himself from past anti-Semitic comments made by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, who has since endorsed Obama. But this controversy underscores the sensitive nature of Texas politics.

PROF. CHRISTINE LEVEAUX-HALEY, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON: In Texas, Latinos and African-Americans are the two warring once -- you know, minority groups.

MALVEAUX: With warring political candidates. Analysts say Hispanics lining up for Clinton, African-Americans for Obama.

PROF. ROB STEIN, RICE UNIVERSITY: Pretty much saying that African-American and Hispanic voters will be about even.

MALVEAUX: But while there may be some tension between the groups, Professor Christine Leveaux-Haley says it's being exaggerated to get Hispanic voters to the polls.

LEVEAUX-HALEY: There might be some need to kind of mobilize the Latino vote or galvanize the Latinos around some type of issue. And that just might be this divide between Latinos and African-American voters.


MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, in speaking with people, a lot of people believe that this is exaggerated, that it's overstated, that these are generalities. The Obama camp certainly rejects that Obama would treat the Hispanic community any different than the needs of the black community.

Also, they point to some examples here, the former Dallas mayor, Ron Kirk. You may remember when he went back, in 2002, for the U.S. Senate bid. He did not make it. But he did beat out the Hispanic candidate in the primary, winning lots of Latino voters.

They say there are plenty of examples where you have black leaders who do have strong, significant Latino support. So they don't think that there is going to be a big problem. But, certainly, Wolf, there does seem to be some sort of tension between these groups -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Ron Kirk, who was here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday himself, an African-American.

Suzanne, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this controversy and more with our chief national correspondent, John King. He's in Cincinnati. Jack Cafferty, he's in New York. And our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, in Columbus, Ohio. They are all part of the best political team on television.

What do you think, Jack, this, I guess, controversy involving Hispanics and blacks in Texas? It is overblown or is it serious? CAFFERTY: Well, characterizing it as a controversy between blacks and Hispanics is going beyond the ignorant utterance of one 84- year-old woman. I mean if you live 84 years, you ought to be smarter than that just by accident, even if you never darkened the doorway of a schoolroom. That was an ignorant, stupid thing to say.

Most people -- black, Hispanic, Asian, white -- understand the election is not about some sort of difference of opinion that exists in the Latino and African-American suburbs or inner city parts of Dallas, Texas. It's about the future of this country, where we're going to go in the world, can we solve some of the problems that reach way beyond those petty differences or whatever it is they are. And taking a sound bite from that woman and turning it into something much larger is one of the things that we don't do very well in the news media.

BLITZER: Candy, Obama's understandably going to do well in the African-American community. How critical is the Latino vote for Hillary Clinton in Texas?

CROWLEY: Well, it's critical. I think probably what's most critical if Obama is to win Texas, is that he make inroads into the Latino demographic there. He doesn't necessarily have to win the Latino vote, but he has to do well to kind of take this state away from her. And you're perfectly right that in order for her to do well and to counteract his strength, certainly, in the cities with the African-American vote, she has to counteract that with the Latino vote.

BLITZER: So what are you hearing, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, traditionally, Jack's point is right, the election is about big things. But traditionally, there have been some tensions in the inner city, especially African-American communities versus the Latino community, especially at times of economic tensions. And this is certainly a time of economic tension. So there are some historical tensions that the elderly woman might have been referring to.

But in terms of the Clinton versus the Obama campaign, look, Candy, knows this better than I do. Obama has been making inroads, as the race has moved on from state to state to state, in many of her core constituents, including the Latino vote.

And if he does that down in Texas, that's one of the reasons the polls have gone from Senator Clinton way ahead a couple of months ago to a dead heat -- or Obama even in the lead right now, is because he is constantly eroding her core constituencies, including Latinos. If he does that on Tuesday, it's trouble for Senator Clinton.

BLITZER: Our latest average poll of polls, as we call it, in Texas, Jack, right now, is Obama at 48 percent, Clinton at 45 percent, seven percent unsure. That's within the margin of error for these likely Democratic primary voters.

She shows, in the polls at least, doing better in Ohio. But she really needs to win both of these states, a lot of her own advisers suggest, to continue to move forward. It's close right now, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Well, it's close except when you consider the fact that in order for her to begin to close the gap on him, in terms of pledged delegates, she would have to win these states, getting roughly 65 percent of the vote. These polls don't indicate she's anywhere close to being able to do that.

The other thing that's interesting -- and John alluded to this -- Obama has been eating into her base all across the country ever since Super Tuesday. And if you, you know, split the women's vote with her and you win the white male vote and you win the African-American vote overwhelmingly and you get a respectable piece of the Latino vote, there's no way she gets 65 percent of either Texas or Ohio. So she's not going to catch him.

BLITZER: But, Candy, if she wins -- barely wins -- let's say she just sneaks out wins in both of these states, everything I'm hearing, she's going to go on to Pennsylvania April 22nd. Even if she's behind in the pledged delegates, she's still slightly ahead among those super-delegates.

CROWLEY: Well, you know and even if she comes out of the March 4th primaries -- Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island -- even if she comes out of it with fewer pledged delegates, if she wins those two big states, it's a psychological barrier that she's breaking.

You know,what do we report on? We report that he's won 11 and 0 -- eleven caucuses or primaries in a row. But she got a lot of delegates during that time. So the reality is, yes, they will come out, they'll still be very close in pledged delegates. But if she wins those two states, the game is on.

BLITZER: And they'll, no doubt, say, John, that she's won New York and California, she wins Texas -- the biggest states she's won. And if she wins Ohio, arguably that's the most important state in the general election. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.

KING: A critical swing state, Wolf. It has been on the winning side -- I believe, since 1964 the winner of Ohio has gone on to win the presidency. And another fact you might want to know about Ohio is no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. So, yes, if she wins, she will say she stopped his momentum and she will go on.

Jack is dead right about the math. Unless she starts running up big percentages, it gets hard to catch up in the delegates. But if she wins, she changes the psychology of the race yet again. And then it's on to big places like Pennsylvania. And I volunteer right here today to pitch in and help with the Democratic coverage in Puerto Rico.


BLITZER: San Juan lovely this time of the year.

All right guys, stand by. We have a lot more to talk about. A possible Independent White House bid now flatly ruled out. But the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, saying there's still hope for Independent voters. We're going to show you why.

Plus, the president on the economy -- is he out of touch? Could it hurt John McCain?

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


BLITZER: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg now saying once and for all he will not run for president this year, in part because he believes the current crop of candidates can offer Independent leadership.

Let's get back to the best political team on television.

Jack, I'll read to you a line from his "New York Times" article making the announcement: "If a candidate takes an independent, non- partisan approach and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy, I'll join others in helping that candidate win the White House."

I guess it's not a huge surprise, but what do you think?

CAFFERTY: Well, I think it's a -- it's the message that's been resonating with voters all over the country. You know, Barack Obama is doing well for a reason. And it's that thing that Mayor Bloomberg is talking about. That's the reason.

Look at the turnouts in these Democratic primaries. Look at the number of Independent and Republican voters who have cast ballots in the open states for Barack Obama. Bloomberg is suggesting, if you read between the lines, that there is a person out there that can do some of the things that he would apparently like to see done, in terms of reaching across the aisle and building a coalition of Americans to try to move forward solving some of these problems.

BLITZER: Would it be wise, Candy, for one of the main candidates -- the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee -- to reach out to Michael Bloomberg as a running mate?

CROWLEY: Running mate. Let me think about that.


CROWLEY: I -- well, you know, I'm so involved in getting this primary process over, I must say. Look, I think there are a lot of names out there that could, in fact, be put on a vice presidential ticket.

Is Michael Bloomberg one of them? I'm not sure who he'd help. Let's face it, he's the mayor of New York. I'm not sure that helps Hillary Clinton. It certainly doesn't help John McCain. I don't know what it does for Barack Obama. You know, these things aren't done like oh, look, he has the same ideas as I do. They're done on a whole host of issues, as to what a candidate, you know, what blanks a candidate has to fill in. I'm not sure what blanks Mayor Bloomberg fills in.

BLITZER: Well, you know, he was a Democrat, then he became a Republican. Now he's an Independent. But, John, he's also a billionaire. He's got a lot of billions of dollars.

KING: Right.

BLITZER: We did some research with some FEC lawyers today, who said if he were a running mate and they were not accepting public financing, you know, he could spend a billion dollars and help that ticket get elected to the White House. That's an intriguing thought.

KING: That and that alone will get him at least on the hmm, maybe we should think about this list of everybody.


KING: Ralph Nader, of course, I guess blew his chance today. He picked his running mate today. You know, the thing I like most about Mike Bloomberg, Wolf, is he's a Red Sox fan. But, look, the candidate -- consider how Mike...

CAFFERTY: Oh, man, here we go.

KING: ... consider how Mike Bloomberg flirted with running for president for months. Well, now he's going to flirt with will he endorse, will he get involved, for months more, as we go on through.

And he has a mini bully pulpit. It's not the presidency, that being the mayor of New York. And, look, it's a state that's going to go Democratic in the fall, barring some huge turn in American politics.

But he is a guy with a national press platform. He has a lot of ideas. And both Obama, Clinton and McCain -- that's three people, not both -- whoever the Democratic nominee and McCain are going to trip over themselves trying to get his endorsement.

He is a Republican at the moment. The key question right now might be can McCain convince him to come to say hey, come to my convention, get on board the Republican campaign. But I'll bet you the ranch that Bloomberg, for now, will say come back to me in a month or three.

BLITZER: Jack, listen to this exchange that President Bush had at his White House news conference earlier today with Peter Mayer of CBS Radio.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TERRY HUNT, ASSOCIATED PRESS CORRESPONDENT: Are you concerned that a sagging economy and hard times will help defeat John McCain like it did your father in 1992? And how far are you willing to go to prevent that?

BUSH: Look, I'm concerned about the economy because I'm concerned about working Americans. I'm concerned about people who want to put money on the table and save for their kids' education.


BLITZER: That was Terry Hunt from the Associated Press, obviously.

You know, there's some fear among Republicans that just as the father lost in '92 to Bill Clinton, a little known governor at the time, former governor of Arkansas, because of the economy and fears of recession, McCain could suffer a similar fate this time around, even though he's got a lot more experience, presumably, than either Obama or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton.

CAFFERTY: Well, McCain's aligned himself with the war. A lot of people disagree with the war. The economy will be the number one issue, looking at the timetable we've got between now and November. So McCain's going to have his work cut out for him.

The embarrassing moment in that news conference was when President Bush was asked a question about the possibility of $4 a gallon gasoline in a few weeks this spring and he had no idea what the reporter was talking about. That's embarrassing for the president. And it's embarrassing if you're a citizen watching your president be that uninformed.

But it's criminal that nobody on his staff, before he held a news conference, said, you know, Mr. President, there's been stories in the media for a couple of days now about the possibility of $4 gasoline and you're likely to get asked about it at the news conference. I mean what the hell kind of a staff is that?

BLITZER: You know, John, he clearly wasn't watching THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday...


BLITZER: ... because we were talking about that $4 -- potential $4 a gallon gasoline when they start refining -- a new refining process later in the spring. It does show, to a certain degree, you know, maybe that he's not aware of what's going on this very sensitive issue.

KING: It certainly was not the answer the American people -- at least the people we're running into during this campaign -- would like to hear, Wolf. When you talk to people in Southern Ohio, anywhere else I've been in recent days and weeks, they not only talk about the price of gasoline, but they say a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread -- all the groceries now cost more and more. Why? Because they have to be shipped in. And they're shpd in on trucks or on trains that need to get fuel. And so the Americans -- especially middle class Americans -- are feeling a squeeze. And that answer -- Jack's right. That answer -- watching the president give that answer today is not going to give them any comfort.

But you know what? He's not on the ballot. This is a question Senator McCain, and either Senator Clinton and Obama are going to have to deal with between now and November. The Iraq War will be an issue, but the number one issue is the economy and the pocketbook squeeze many Americans are feeling.

BLITZER: All right, John and Candy, thanks very much.

Jack, don't go away. We've got "The Cafferty File" coming up.

An interesting fact, by the way, about John McCain. He was born outside the United States, in the Panama Canal Zone, while his father served in the U.S. Navy. Should that affect his ability to be president of the United States? That's Jack Cafferty's question this hour. Your e-mail coming up.

Also, Paul Newman and Garth Brooks -- they're not candidates, but their names are on the ballots in one state. You're going to find out why.

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


BLITZER: John McCain says his remark that U.S. troops might be in Iraq 100 years was distorted. The Republican told a crowd in Houston he was asked if U.S. forces might be in Iraq 50 years and he simply tossed out a response, maybe 100. McCain says he does believe the U.S. commitment in Iraq will be lengthy, but says he expects the war to be won -- and I'm quoting now -- "fairly soon."

Guess who's on the ballot in Oregon? One county is asking voters whether the actor Paul Newman or the country star Garth Brooks should be national director of entertainment. No, it's not for real. Yamhill County is mailing out mock ballots to test its new voting system before the May 20th election.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's joining us from New York -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: John McCain was born outside the United States. Our question this hour is: Should that affect his ability to be president?

He was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936, where his father was stationed as a member of the United States Navy. We got a lot of mail in this question.

Jim in New York writes: "I'm not a supporter of McCain's candidacy. I'm a Republican and I think this issue is ridiculous. It's a perfect example of what Barack Obama calls 'the silly season of politics'. Let's spend some air time and compare McCain's health care ideas to those of Clinton and Obama and give the silly season stuff a rest."

Clarence writes: "As a military member myself, who is stationed overseas, I sure would hate to think all the children born to service members are not considered natural born American citizens. I think this is just another ploy against McCain because they know he's a very strong candidate and they will throw anything they can at him."

Rick weighs in with: "If John McCain was not born in the United States, he shouldn't be eligible to be president of the United States, according to the plain reading of the U.S. constitution. However, as the presidential candidacy of Congressman Ron Paul has made clear our government has made clear, our government has disregarded the Constitution in many areas."

Chris says: "I'm a Barack Obama supporter, but even I find this not to be a big issue. It is true that, strictly speaking, Senator McCain was not born within one of the 50 United States of America. But at this point in the election process, it would be ridiculous to restrict a frontrunner candidate from either party on such a small technicality."

Richard in Texas writes: "I definitely think John McCain should be disqualified. The rules are the rules."

A Texas Teacher with: "You're kidding me, right? He's a natural born citizen since his parents are, were, U.S. citizens. It doesn't matter if he popped out in panama, New York or on the moon."

And Kelly in Fort Worth, Texas: "I couldn't care less where he was born, as long as he doesn't become our next president. The more I see of him, the more convinced I am that his regime would be more painful to live through than the current one." -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you. See you tomorrow.

For those who accuse the media of not asking Barack Obama the tough questions, a leading celebrity magazine steps up.

Jeanne Moos is standing by to take a Moost Unusual look.


BLITZER: Can presidential candidates find access to millions of potential supporters through the gossip pages of a magazine?

Jeanne Moos takes a Moost Unusual look at what she calls a new frontier in presidential campaigning.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Open a bag of chips, curl up with a dishy talk show and a tabloidy celeb magazine, turn to your favorite section -- "stars, they're just like us." Yes, well so are presidential candidates. So Barack Obama jokingly asked "Us Weekly"...

LARA COHEN, NEWS DIRECTOR, "US WEEKLY": Don't show my celluloid. No embarrassing pictures of me.

MOOS: He really is just like us. "I pick up groceries. I ride with my kids." At least they didn't show him yawning with his mouth open, like they did Kurt Russell.

Instead, they showed him spicing up his gumbo. Thanks to "Us Weekly," we now know answers to questions like...

(on camera): His favorite show on TV?

COHEN: Oh, it's "The Wire." He told me that his favorite food was chili.

MOOS (voice-over): Favorite ice cream? Mint chocolate chip. The celebrity magazine is the latest frontier in presidential campaigning, allowing candidates to show themselves...

COHEN: Looking like human beings instead of just the consummate politician.

MOOS: And gaining access to 12 million mostly female readers.

(on camera): There's Barack sandwiched in between Brangelina and Owen and Kate dating again.

(voice-over): And look who else showed up in "Us Weekly" back around Super Tuesday -- "My Worst Outfits Ever" featured Hillary playing fashion police on herself. She supplied the self-deprecating captions: "Now you know why I stick with pantsuits."

COHEN: You can't really go wrong with that carpet coat right there.

MOOS: "I'm a big believer in recycling, even carpets." Hillary's campaign did "Us Weekly" but blew off "Vogue." Columnist Liz Smith said the campaign thought "Vogue" would be too elitist and too glamorous.

There's nothing glamorous about this. And there's Barack Obama answering questions like does wife Michelle have a celebrity crush?

Yes, on Stevie Wonder. Obama says he's been teasing his wife about pushing the performer off the stage ever since Stevie Wonder fell at an Obama rally.

And then there was the question the "Us Weekly" interviewer saved for last...

COHEN: In case it was an interview ender.

MOOS: The question Bill Clinton probably regrets answering.


MOOS: Obama kept it brief, saying he doesn't answer those humiliating questions, but that he looks good in both. And when asked if he's a cool dad, he said pretty cool, citing his dancing a while back on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

And now, he's busted a move again on Ellen. He's just like us -- except we're not trying to dance to the White House.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: That's it for us. Thanks very much for joining.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT". Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou -- Kitty.