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Florida Says No to New Primary; Barack Obama to Address Race Issue; Interview With Former President Bill Clinton

Aired March 17, 2008 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: the breaking news we're following. Florida's Democratic Party says, no, no to a primary revote. So, what does this mean for the presidential contest and the megastate's delegates?

Barack Obama is set to address racial tensions head on. Can he put the red-hot remarks of his former pastor behind him? We will consider what he should say in his speech tomorrow morning.

And Bill Clinton denies playing the race card, but he says it was played against his wife. The former president opening up about the Clinton/Obama showdown and his role in it -- our interview with Bill Clinton coming up shortly right here.

I'm Wolf Blitzer along with the best political team on television. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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

Up first this hour: the breaking news out of Florida. After weeks of wrangling, Florida Democrats are pulling the plug on efforts to do a makeover primary in that state. As of right now, that means the state's delegates have no role in choosing between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Is there still hope, though for some sort of compromise?

Let's go to John Zarrella. He's watching the story for us from our Miami bureau.

And just some background, John, Florida was stripped of its delegates because it move up its primary to January, against Democratic National Committee rules. And, as it stands right now, those Florida delegates are going to have are going to have zero say in who will be the Democratic presidential nominee.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: That's exactly right, Wolf.

And that's a big number, too. That's 210 delegates. And, as we know, Hillary Clinton actually won the Florida -- quote -- "beauty contest" by 17 percentage points. So, there's not much impetus in the Clinton side to try to do something else. And, on the Obama side, they would just as soon it stay not counted for their benefit.

So, the candidates don't appear to be coming together anytime soon on trying to resolve this. And it may well be in their hands. Last week, the Florida Democratic Party floated a plan that would have allowed a mail-in ballot. It would have cost between $10 million and $12 million. They said, OK, we're going to spend the weekend. We will take a look at it. We want to hear comment, get feedback.

The caucus and the Florida Democrats already said no. Most Democrats have said no. So, the bottom line today, the Florida Democratic Party said, look, there will not be a revote in Florida, leaving it in the hands of the Democratic National Committee to try and find a resolution -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what Howard Dean and the DNC can do about this. There are going to be a lot of angry people out there, John, as you well know -- John Zarrella watching the story.

We are going to have much more on this coming up later with the best political team on television.

In Michigan, by the way, they're still considering a way to have a makeover primary on June 3, the legislature there considering some options. That's still a viable option in Michigan. But, as you just heard, the Democrats in Florida say they simply can't get their act together and have another primary in Florida in time.

Other important news we're following, it's been yet another day for Americans to have an economic anxiety attack, the panic being felt from Wall Street to Washington to the campaign trail, especially on Main Street.

There are growing fears that other big investment banks may be in peril after the government-backed buyout of Bear Stearns. The shockwaves sent stock prices plunging almost 200 points at the start of the day, but the Dow rebounded to close up -- up -- 21 points by the end of the day.

The volatile economy adding more fuel today to the close and volatile Democratic presidential race.

Our Suzanne Malveaux is out on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania watching the story for us.

Suzanne, the candidates are reacting to this economic peril. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, both of the candidates responded. They said that this was obviously -- they put it on the Bush administration. They blame him, but they're also using this as an occasion to looking forward at the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, saying that in part has been the problem, that it's cost trillions of dollars, and they have used this as an argument as to why they're going to end the war.

They say this will free up some money to obviously help out the economy. I had a chance to ask Barack Obama what he would do today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Both candidates are competing over who would be the best steward of the economy. For voters, issue number one.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The economy is in trouble.

MALVEAUX: As an example of taking action, Senator Clinton boasted she had just spoken with the Treasury secretary and president of the Federal Reserve.

H. CLINTON: I relayed to them my thoughts and concerns.

MALVEAUX: Something early on Obama could not match.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, we have a number of phone calls that are scheduled. I have been talking to some of the heads of the larger banks on Wall Street.

MALVEAUX: Obama praised the Fed for taking action to restore confidence in the market.

OBAMA: I think that Secretary Paulson is -- along with Ben Bernanke -- are taking some creative steps to deal with the issue. And I'm encouraged that they're trying to act swiftly.

MALVEAUX: Obama also pitched tax cuts for the middle class and legislation he co-sponsored aimed at ending the mortgage meltdown.

OBAMA: This is not a bailout for lenders or investors who gambled recklessly. And it is not a windfall for borrowers. It is a fair and responsible way to help stem the foreclosure crisis.

MALVEAUX: For her part, Clinton touted her own plan to create new jobs, and reminded voters of the good old days back when her husband was in office.

H. CLINTON: The only four years that we spent -- that we took in as a federal government were from '98 to '01.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And the truth of the matter is, Wolf, there's very little difference between these candidates when it comes to their economic plans, both of them today talking about tax cuts for working- class families, repealing the tax cuts for wealthy, of amending the NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, to protect jobs, and then also try to create new jobs using alternative sources of fuel -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux in Pittsburgh for us, thank you.

The probable Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is using his just-finished trip to Iraq to hammer his Democratic opponents.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, spoke with Senator McCain in Baghdad -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in the Iraq political debate these past five years, this has been George W. Bush's war, but to watch Senator John McCain in the streets of Iraq the past two days and to listen to the Republican presidential candidate, it is very clear he understands, this is now his fight, too.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Playtime on a road that, just months ago, was off limits, traffic jams, bustling markets, proof John McCain, tells CNN, he was right, and the Democrats dead wrong.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The surge is working.

KING: On the balcony of what was Saddam Hussein's presidential palace, the senator made clear he came to Baghdad with many complaints.

MCCAIN: Their failure to declare provincial elections, oil revenue-sharing. There is still corruption in areas, particularly among Shiite parts of the government.

KING: But, overall, upbeat. His eighth visit to Iraq comes eight months before Election Day at home. And McCain is convinced the war that nearly doomed his candidacy is turning for the better.

MCCAIN: We are succeeding, and we can succeed. And American casualties overall are way down. That is in direct contradiction to the predictions made by the Democrats, and particularly Senator Obama and Senator Clinton.

KING: A drive through Baghdad now is different.

(on camera): Six to eighth months ago, here in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood, car bombings were still frequent. But, as you can see now, the markets are open, the streets are quite busy, and the security situation is dramatically better.

(voice-over): But critics call it mostly a mirage and say, absent political reconciliation, U.S. troops would have to stay for decades in large numbers just to keep today's relative calm.

And security improvements are hardly universal.

(on camera): Senator McCain visited the Shurga market just up the road a bit a year ago as part of a high-profile effort to suggest security already was dramatically improving. But it took more than 100 troops to escort him and provide security for the visit. And, a year later, the neighborhood remains highly volatile, unsafe for an American to visit, and under the control of radical cleric Muqtada al- Sadr's Mahdi army. MCCAIN: All I can say is that, yet, there are other neighborhoods of Baghdad where kids are out playing soccer, people are in the street.

KING (voice-over): What next is the new dividing line. Extra troops sent for the surge are rotating home. U.S. troop levels will drop to about 145,000 by July. The Democrats say, withdraw more quickly. McCain says, not so fast.

MCCAIN: We probably should hold the 15 brigades for a while and see how the progress goes.

KING (on camera): It's five years this week. And, as you know, the American people have soured. Some are just vehemently opposed. Some are just tired. How do you go to them and say, I need to you rally?

MCCAIN: You show them the facts on the ground. You show them the statistics. And I also have to point out to them the consequences of failure, as advocated by the Democrats.

KING (voice-over): This began five years ago this week. And, for 10 more months anyway, this is George W. Bush's war. But to watch and listen to Senator McCain is to be reminded, this is very much his fight, too.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Senator McCain knows his Democratic rivals will quickly criticize his call to suspend any additional troop reductions here in Iraq. And he also tells us he is well aware that public opinion back home in the United States is not on his side.

But he insists the facts are on his side and that, over the next eight months, he can make the case that, after so many mistakes the past few years, that the security situation in Iraq is improving, and he will make the case to voters that, if they side with Democrats, this country will quickly collapse back into chaos -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much -- John King in Baghdad for us.

The Democratic presidential candidates are battling over Iraq and who has a better plan for getting the troops out and getting them out quickly.

Let's go to Brian Todd. He is picking up this part of the story.

Brian, the Democratic candidates, in contrast to McCain, they are not talking about success in Iraq.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, Wolf, they use very different language indeed, but they do hammer at each other as well, today, Hillary Clinton going after Barack Obama for what she claims are his inconsistent positions on the war. He hit back against her judgment for voting for the invasion. But, in reality, there is surprisingly little that separates these two candidates on Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hillary Clinton says 30 generals and admirals, all retired, now support her. But, as president, what would she order the generals and admirals in charge to do about Iraq?

H. CLINTON: Direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to start bringing our troops home within the first 60 days of my taking office.

TODD: Barack Obama, according to his advisers, wants to start that process sooner. What about completing the withdrawal? Advisers to their campaigns say Clinton and Obama both want to bring home one to two combat brigades, up to 10,000 troops, each month, with the goal of getting nearly all combat troops out within one year of taking office.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will bring this war to an end in 2009. That is the commitment that I have made to the American people.

TODD: Both Democrats say their timetables may change depending on conditions in Iraq. And both refuse to sign a pledge to have all U.S. soldiers out by the end of their first terms.

Two military analysts we spoke to, both retired generals who haven't declared support for any candidate, say the idea of setting a schedule for a complete withdrawal is worrisome for security reasons. One area where they say the candidates have left themselves wiggle room?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: They would leave a residual force behind, a residual force to train, to advise, to further assist in the stability operations.

TODD: But both Democrats strongly oppose keeping permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

With so little daylight between them, Clinton and Obama hammer each other on the question of judgment. She says he doesn't have enough experience to make sound judgments on the war. Obama counters that Clinton's judgment has been wrong from the start.

OBAMA: I have been clear that this was a strategic error, unlike Senator Clinton, who voted for this war and has never taken responsibility for that vote.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Well, on that score, Hillary Clinton did sign on to a failed effort in the Senate to de-authorize the war last year, and she has introduced legislation that would ban President Bush from negotiating long-term security commitments to Iraq, both measures the Obama campaign says he has supported -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much for that.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: China has been hoping to boost its image in the eyes of the world as it gets ready to host the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. But the Chinese government's crackdown on protesters in Tibet is not helping that image.

What began a week ago as mostly peaceful protests by monks has now spiraled into violent clashes, with people dying, Tibetans attacking the Chinese, burning their businesses. The Chinese government, vowing to protect its territory, issued a midnight deadline that's actually now passed for the protesters to either surrender or face harsh consequences.

There are reports of Chinese authorities parading handcuffed Tibetan prisoners in the capital of Lhasa, Chinese police going house to house checking I.D. cards, resident's permits. The Chinese government puts the death toll at 16, with dozens injured. But the Dalai Lama's exiled government says that 80 people have been killed, and some reports say it's even more than that.

Meanwhile, the protests that began in Tibet have spilled into three neighboring provinces and even to Beijing. Sympathy protests are springing up around the world. China is insisting this violence will not harm the upcoming Olympic Games. The U.S. is calling on China to show restraint. But China's getting support from, who else, Russia, another beacon of human rights.

The Russian government says it hopes China will take -- quote -- "all necessary measures to stop illegal actions." You know, those violent Tibetan monks, how they can get. Russia adds that any efforts to boycott the Olympics are unacceptable.

I didn't realize Russia had been in charge of that. Olympic officials also say they are opposed to a boycott because of the violence in Tibet, because, of course, that would cost everybody lots of money.

Here's the question. Should countries boycott the Olympic Games in China, in light of China's crackdown on protesters in Tibet?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks for that. Jack will be back shortly with the best political team on television.

Bill Clinton explains why the Democratic nomination may need to be decided by a select few.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I predict to you that by the time the voting is finished, we will have a feeling about what we will do. And then people won't begrudge the so-called superdelegates and the decisions they make.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The CNN interview with the former president. We will hear from a very candid Bill Clinton on his controversial role in his wife's campaign. That's coming up next.

Also, Barack Obama plans a front-and-center speech on race in America. Can that overcome any setback caused by the racial rhetoric of his spiritual adviser?

And a desperate search comes to an end. The last bodies are pulled from the rubble of that construction crane accident in New York.

Lots of new is happening today -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Bill Clinton is back in the spotlight of his wife's presidential campaign. He's denying he played racial politics on her behalf in the South Carolina primary or that he or his role in the campaign has been diminished because of the controversy.

The former president sat down with CNN's Sean Callebs in New Orleans yesterday

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CALLEBS: Has your role in the campaign changed at all from South Carolina? Has it evolved?

B. CLINTON: No. No.

First of all, what happened there is a total myth and a mugging. And I think it's been pretty well established.

Charlie Rangel, the most important African-American official today, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in unequivocal terms, in South Carolina, that no one in our campaign played any race cards; that we had some played against us, but we didn't play any.

What we started doing in -- actually in New Hampshire is what we continue to do.

In New Hampshire I went to the northern part of the state to the distressed areas and talked about Hillary's energy plan and how it would enable New Hampshirites to reopen a lot of their timber mills and generate electricity from wood waste and other things, because her plan would reroute some of the transmission lines there and make New Hampshire more energy independent.

So then we went to -- Nevada it didn't work because half the Democratic vote's in Las Vegas, so everybody has to campaign there, as well as out in the state.

But then when we got to South Carolina, and when we got to most recently in Texas and...

CALLEBS: Ohio.

B. CLINTON: ... Ohio and in Pennsylvania, generally she goes to the bigger, more populous areas, and I try to go to around into the rural areas of the state, to make sure that everyplace knows that we want their vote.

And it's worked pretty well. If you look at -- we did it in Missouri where I thought we were going to get killed because the whole political establishment was against Hillary. She lost St. Louis 90-10 but she carried 109 of 114 counties in Missouri.

Then it worked like a charm in Tennessee and Oklahoma and Arkansas, because she had a good profile there. She got 70 percent of the vote in Arkansas because they know her.

So that's basically what we do. We try to organize it so I can go places that normally a presidential campaign doesn't go and hopefully run our vote up there and she can make her case, as she has to, in the big urban areas and with the media.

CALLEBS: If, as you said, the race card was played against you -- I was at the State of the Black Union a few weeks back when your wife came in and said, "If anybody was offended by what happened in my campaign, I apologize." In Mississippi nine out of 10 black voters supported Barack Obama. Are you concerned that this is becoming more polarized?

B. CLINTON: No. No.

That was going to happen -- Iowa did that. People that really understand politics know that.

Once African-Americans understood that they had a candidate with a serious chance to win the nomination and perhaps the presidency, then it was going to be a question of somewhere between 80 and 90 percent were going to support him, except in areas where she had a particularly strong profile. Like she got about, I think, about 30 percent of the African-American vote in Florida, probably -- over 20 percent anyway in California and probably 25 percent and higher in the areas where the African-American members of Congress supported her.

And she probably got about 35 percent, maybe a little more, in Arkansas, where she had a very strong lifetime of experience. And she won Congressman Rangel, so she won Harlem, where my office is. Actually won, which was astonishing.

But, I think, that that was just going to happen.

The most important thing is for her is to make it clear to all voters, in the way that he does when he tries to get middle-aged working women to vote for him, you know, something that she does very well, that she wants their votes, she thinks she would be their president, and whatever they do in the primary, if she's the nominee, she's going to represent them.

And I think that you have got to understand, most of these voters like both of these candidates. While the campaign has to be presented and reported as a conflict, because it's a contest, you know, and you have got to know what the differences are, and while the -- some of the surrogates may say things which are or are not on message or things seem over the top, and while you have to examine people's history and record in public life, the fundamental fact is most of the Democrats like both of these candidates.

And they're trying to figure out, "Who'd be the best president? Who's likely to do things or be what I need most in a president? And who's most likely to win?"

And the rules are organized so that the thing has to be kept very close. That was a decision the Democrats made 20 years ago.

If we had the Republican rules, Hillary would have a prohibitive lead in the delegates, and Senator Obama's people would be upset because he has a little bit of a lead in the popular vote now.

By the end of this process, it's more likely that Hillary will be ahead in the popular vote, and he will have a little lead in the delegates because we have so many caucuses and things like that.

That's the rules we have.

If John McCain were subject to our rules, he wouldn't be near the Republican nomination yet, and you would probably still have four of them still in it.

Those are the decisions we made. So, we got to live with it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The former president of the United States speaking with Sean Callebs.

Coming up: a new move by Barack Obama to put the controversial words of his former pastor behind him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I think the caricature that's being painted of him is not accurate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Obama now planning to give what his aides describe as a major speech on race and politics tomorrow. The best political team on television is standing by with advice on what Obama should and should not say.

Plus, the possible fallout now that Florida is saying no to a Democratic primary revote. Will Michigan get its act together? And what will it mean for Clinton vs. Obama?

And the new governor of New York provides an antidote to scandal. David Paterson son leaves them laughing at his swearing-in ceremony.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now: the breaking news out of Florida, no revote in Florida. The state's Democratic Party saying it will not -- repeat, not -- hold a second primary. So, what does that mean for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's battle for delegates?

Barack Obama is set to give a morning speech on race. That happens tomorrow. But will it soothe some of the recent tension over racial issues?

And John McCain sees up close the war he could inherit if he's elected president, travels to Iraq for the first time as the presumptive Republican nominee, McCain says, not for campaign photo opportunities. What is he doing there? All of this coming up, plus the best political team on television.

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

Senator Barack Obama is condemning extremely controversial comments by his former minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but he also says the news media is portraying Wright incorrectly.

Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello. She's watching this story for us.

What's the reaction we're getting, Carol, from Wright's church in Chicago?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, two words, Wolf, character assassination, especially since Wright's church is by no means radical.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): The most glaring question in many voters minds now is, why choose a spiritual adviser whose rhetoric at least at times seemed so inflammatory?

QUESTION: Why did you choose this particular church with this particular pastor to help lay the moral foundation for raising your children?

OBAMA: I know you guys are curious about this. This is why I'm giving a speech. I will absolutely address it.

COSTELLO: His explanation on Tuesday will no doubt catch the attention of millions of voters, who will want to know why Obama did not go beyond simply condemning the specific comments from Pastor Jeremiah Wright.

REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT, TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

CHERI JACOBUS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The problem for Barack Obama is that he has known about this for quite some time, and he gave this man a leadership position on his campaign, and he's telling us to judge him on his judgment.

COSTELLO: Obama has belonged to Pastor Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ for decades, and he's not the only prominent professional African-American to admire Wright and his church.

The rapper Common led Wright's 2008 New Year's celebration. Another prominent attendee of the church, Cheryl Burton, a Chicago news anchor, who described Trinity Church in a news story as unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian. Oprah Winfrey was also a member. Her Harpo Productions told me, Oprah was a member from 1984 to 1986, but was unable to confirm why she isn't a member anymore.

Supporters of Wright say what's being said about him, though, is unfair, his church calling it character assassination.

REV. FREDERICK D. HAYNES, FRIENDSHIP-WEST BAPTIST CHURCH: We still have a nation that is in many instances divided by race and class. And, as a consequence, you have experiences that are different. And, whenever the experience is different, the expression will be different.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: The expression will be different.

An example of that, Pastor Wright might describe Jesus' crucifixion as a lynching because lynching is a word that resonates with an African-American congregation. Now whether Barack Obama can make most of America understand that I guess we'll see tomorrow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

Carol, thank you.

So will Barack Obama's speech help answer why he followed this pastor who's made these controversial statements?

Let's get to our roundtable.

Joining us now, our senior analyst, Jeff Toobin. Jack Cafferty in New York, as well. And senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's here in Washington. They're all part of the best political team on television.

What do you want to hear from Obama tomorrow, Jack?

CAFFERTY: Well, it's not so much what I want to hear. I think he might be a little late getting in front of this story -- or trying to get in front of it. The story kind of took him over the end of last week.

If he was paying attention at all, he had to be aware that, potentially, some of the things this guy said could be considered controversial. And what he needs to do is, to the degree he's able tomorrow, put it behind him so he can get back on message with the campaign.

Some of what the fellow said in Carol's piece there, that when the expression is different -- the experience is different, the expression might be different is an interesting way to look at it. And then when you begin to look at some of the people who have attended this church, particularly the Chicago anchorwoman's description of unapologetically Christian and -- what did she say -- absolutely black or whatever it was -- it's not the kind of extremist hot bed of racist rhetoric that sometimes the news media has portrayed it to be by running these sound bites out of context over and over and over again for the last five days.

Gloria, how much of a political problem does Barack Obama have?

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I do think that the Reverend Wright's incendiary statements -- the ones we have been seeing -- are a real political problem for Obama. And I think that's largely because the question of who Barack Obama is is still very unsettled with the American public.

And that's one of the reasons he is giving this speech tomorrow. I talked with one of his top advisers, David Axelrod, today. And he said look, race and politics was bound to come up at some point and this is as good a time as any for Obama to give a speech.

But I think he can't only give a speech from the high altitude, Wolf. I think he also needs to answer some very specific questions about his relationship with the Reverend Wright, how he could be a member of this church for 20 years -- an active member -- and not have heard any sermons such as the ones that we've been hearing from this DVD and let the American public in a little bit about why he personally is not as angry as the Reverend Wright seems to be.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, what do you think?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I really do disagree. I think Obama's critics ought to be careful in playing with this issue. You know, he doesn't vouch for everything his pastor says. He wasn't present during all -- during all of these allegedly incendiary things. I mean some of them clearly are incendiary.

But, you know, in a guy who's been a pastor for decades, to pick a few things out of context and to say that Obama should have quit his church over it, I think it's playing with fire. And I think the Clinton campaign somebody wise to do what it's doing and say nothing about it. Because I think this is likely to boomerang on anyone who uses it against Obama.

CAFFERTY: You know, this might be hard for a lot of people to believe, but I go to church probably 45 weeks out of the year. And there have been numerous times -- and I've gone to the same church for the last 18 or 19 years. And there have been numerous times I've been sitting there and the pastor will say something and I'll go, what the hell are they thinking?

It doesn't mean I get up and quit the church. It means that day the guy was off his game and said something I didn't happen to agree with.

And I think Jeff's point is very well taken. You don't go 20 years and turn the spiritual teaching of your children over to someone if you're not pretty sure that they're on a sound footing. And if they're not on a sound footing and you do it anyway, then you probably don't have the judgment to be president.

So I think Jeff has probably got a point.

BORGER: But this is a man whom Obama has said has been an important figure in his life -- almost his spiritual mentor. Which is why I think...

CAFFERTY: Well, my minister is an important figure in my life, too. But that doesn't mean I buy everything they say lock, stock and barrel.

BORGER: Exactly. But that's why I think he needs to get out there and explain that. And he needs to say that specifically.

TOOBIN: Really, Gloria?

BORGER: Yes, I do.

TOOBIN: I mean I just...

BORGER: I really do. I really do.

TOOBIN: I just wonder what it's like to, you know, force a presidential candidate or insist on a presidential candidate, you know, defining his spiritual life in such a degree in public that -- well, I agree with this, I don't agree with that.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

TOOBIN: This is a guy, for example -- Barack Obama -- who's written a great deal about his spiritual life in his book.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: And I think it's pretty well known what he thinks. And I don't think it's all that relevant what his pastor thinks on a handful of issues.

BORGER: And, look, as his campaign said -- they said to me, these are not Barack Obama's words. Don't forget, these are not his words...

CAFFERTY: Well, the other...

BORGER: ...these are Reverend Wright's words.

CAFFERTY: Well, the other thing you could bring up how is this different than John McCain chasing after Pat Robertson or the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who talk about how we have a culture of murdering unborn children in this country and that we've turned into Sodom because we coddled the gay community in this country?

I mean, to me, that stuff is considerably more offensive than decrying racial violence...

BLITZER: All right...

CAFFERTY: ...and intolerance in this country, which members of the black community have some firsthand knowledge of.

BLITZER: Gloria, give us some perspective on a very different issue -- Florida's Democratic Party decision now to back off -- no makeover, no additional primary in the State of Florida.

What's the fallout from that?

BORGER: Well, I think we're kind of back to square one. I talked with Senator Tom Daschle, who is one of Senator Obama's chief delegate counters, after this decision came out. And I think it's very clear that what the Obama campaign would then like is to go into the convention with Florida delegates being divided in such a way that's reflective of the delegates that have been elected. That will not come as a surprise to anyone.

And, of course, the Clinton campaign would say no, Florida's delegates should come as reflective of the vote in Florida.

So we're back to square one.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jeff?

TOOBIN: I think the whole thing is a real disgrace. I mean imagine one of the biggest, most important states in the country with no representation at the Democratic convention. I mean I think that's just appalling. In a very practical sense, this is very good news for Barack Obama, because had there been a re-vote, Hillary Clinton likely would have done well in Florida. There's a lot of Hispanic voters, a lot of older voter. She does well with them.

So the result is either going to be no delegates or an even split. And I think that's good for Obama.

BLITZER: But let's remember, too...

CAFFERTY: But let's remember, too, it was a Republican governor who signed the legislation, in full violation of the rules of the Democratic be National Committee, which changed the date of the primary in Florida. Florida did this to itself.

BORGER: Well, we're not going to feel sorry for that.

I have one thing to say, though. Rules Committee at the convention, Howard Dean gets to appoint 25 members of that Rules Committee. This could really give Howard Dean a lot more power than a lot of folks think he should have.

BLITZER: And hovering over all of this is what's going to happen in November.

If Florida has no say in choosing the Democratic nominee, how are the voters in Florida going to react to that come November?

All right guys, stand by...

CAFFERTY: Well, the way they screwed up the 2000 election, maybe we shouldn't let them vote at all this year.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Stand by, guys. We've got more to talk about.

BORGER: Keep those e-mails coming.

BLITZER: John McCain in Iraq -- the presumptive Republican nominee says it's not for campaign purposes.

So what is it for?

And days of scandal eased by a bit of humor -- the New York State legislature swearing in a new governor and adding a new page to its history. And a new turn to the page -- and a turn on the page to the recent very dark days in that state. The new governor of New York becomes a bit of a comedian. You're going to want to hear some of what he said.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll be glad to stake my campaign on the fact that this has succeeded and the American people appreciate it.

Now, will we be able to succeed fast enough, will they be able to -- Al Qaeda be able to come back?

That's a tough question. They're on the run, but they're not defeated.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: John McCain speaking to our John King in Baghdad just a little while ago.

Let's talk about what's going on with the best political team on television.

Jack, what do you think about McCain's visit to Iraq and what he's saying?

He's hammering away at the two Democratic candidates for supposedly getting ready to throw up their hands and watch defeat happen in Iraq.

CAFFERTY: I think he ought to be reading a book on the economy while he's flying around over there -- on the taxpayers' dime, I might add. He took Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman with him -- two of his most visible and biggest supporters. And they're going to go to France and Britain and Jordan and Israel and Iraq. And you and I are paying for it.

And I think that's wrong. I think the old Straight Talk Express guy ought to go to his hip and pay for this crap out of his own money.

BLITZER: What do you think?

He is a member, Gloria, of the Armed Services Committee. The two other senators are senior members of the Armed Services Committee. And that's what members of the Armed Services Committee do, they go on trips around the world.

CAFFERTY: Oh, come on. Give me a break, Wolf.

BORGER: Right. And they say this was a long planned trip. But, obviously, he's the presumptive Republican nominee now and this is going to look like a political trip.

But what McCain is saying is entirely consistent. He has said this forever -- that he was for the surge before President Bush was for the surge. And I think part of his trip to Iraq will be to show, in fact, that the surge is working. I also think it's to meet with General Petraeus, in whom he has a great deal of confidence. And last week, Petraeus opened the door a little bit, if you all noticed, in an interview with the Washington "Washington Post," in which he said, you know, that the political progress in Iraq is not going as well as he wants. And I believe that that gives McCain a bit of an opening to distance himself from George W. Bush, if he needs to do so, on Iraq a little bit.

TOOBIN: Boy, I think this trip is a perfect distillation of John McCain's candidacy, because it's courageous, it's honest, it's straightforward and it's out of step with about two-thirds of the American people. Because people don't want to support our Army there anymore. They want our troops home. They don't want any more troops to die. They don't want to pay for billion after billions of dollars.

So I think this is a good -- this is why we have elections, because whoever the Democratic nominee is going to have a completely different view of Iraq and voters are going to get to choose.

BLITZER: Just to be precise...

CAFFERTY: You see how we're doing...

BLITZER: Hold on a second. I just want to be precise. They do support the troops, they simply don't support the military operation, the mission, if you will...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ...what the policy is, Jeff.

TOOBIN: No, they.

BLITZER: I want you to be precise, because you get angry mail if you say they're no longer supporting our...

TOOBIN: No, no, no. I mean, absolutely, they support the troops. And the way they want to support the troops is to bring them home to their family.

BORGER: Well, but they're not sure about the right and safest way to withdraw the troops. I mean you see a lot of ambivalence in the polls we're looking at from the American public about whether we ought to withdraw the troops right away, whether you have to do it carefully, whether you need to draw down over a certain period of time. I mean they're not siding with John McCain saying they ought to be there years and years.

But I do think the American public is seeing a little bit more success in Iraq and they're thoughtful about what is the best way to get out of Iraq.

BLITZER: And, Jack, McCain really has -- I don't know what the analogy is, the metaphor -- he's doubled down or he's all in. When it comes to the war in Iraq, he's risking his entire campaign, basically, that between now and November, things get better.

CAFFERTY: Well, the news for John McCain is -- and I said it earlier -- he ought to be reading this book on the economy. This economy is going to be a bigger issue for him in November than the war in Iraq is.

As to whether or not he needs to go to Iraq to talk to General Petraeus, I'm sitting in New York.

BORGER: (INAUDIBLE).

CAFFERTY: Jeff Toobin is in New York. Gloria is in Washington. Wolf Blitzer is in Washington.

See how this works?

We didn't have to go to Washington to talk to Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: We could do it with a satellite. And that it's how John McCain and the general could do it, too.

TOOBIN: Yes. I don't really buy that. I mean, yes, it is true that they could talk this way. But I think there's no substitute for seeing things for yourself.

And, also, I think -- you know, yes, the economy will be a bigger issue. But the war in Iraq is going to be a big issue, too. And there's a huge difference between the parties on this issue. And that's a good thing.

BORGER: But, by the way, when the Democrats are fighting over the commander-in-chief issue and who should answer the phone at 3:00 in the morning, John McCain is in Baghdad looking, you know, presidential. He may be on a Congressional delegation that Jack thinks shouldn't be paid for by the American taxpayers, but he's out there meeting with General Petraeus and everyone else.

BLITZER: But the question -- and we've got to leave it here guys -- is, you know, two days in Baghdad isn't like spending a lot of time there...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ...seeing what's going on. You get a little flavor. But, obviously, in two days, Sunday and Monday, in Iraq, you can't really get a full sense of what's going on.

CAFFERTY: Well, the last time he was there, we got a total misrepresentation of what the reality was.

Remember that?

BLITZER: We remember very vividly, Jack. And a lot of our viewers do, as well.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

Jack's got The Cafferty File coming up.

Jeff and Gloria, you can go home.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Go home already.

BORGER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, guys.

Thanks very much.

Lou Dobbs can't go home. He's got a show coming up right at the top of the hour. He's standing by to give us a little preview.

What have you got on top -- Lou?

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": I don't want to go home. I'm having a good time, unlike your grumpy panel there, for crying out loud, Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

DOBBS: Cheer them up.

BLITZER: I will.

BLITZER: I will.

DOBBS: All right.

Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern here, we'll have much more on our economic crisis. President Bush says he's taking what he calls "strong and decisive action" to rescue this economy and markets. But he's refusing to rescue Americans who are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. No problem, though, rescuing a Wall Street investment bank. Three of the country's very best economists join me.

And the Supreme Court preparing to hear arguments in a momentous case that could affect every American's constitutional right to carry a gun. We'll have that report.

And we'll have the latest on the appeal of two former Border Patrol agents who are the victims of the worst miscarriage of justice I've seen meted out to law enforcement officers ever.

All of that and more coming up at the top of the hour.

All the day's news as well and much more.

Please join us -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Lou.

Thanks very much.

Days of protests and riots in Tibet are putting China in the spotlight once again, only months before the Beijing Summer Olympics.

So should the U.S. and other countries actually boycott the much anticipated games?

We have your e-mails to Jack Cafferty. That's coming up.

And March madness on the campaign trail -- John McCain bets his supporters about his picks for the NCAA basketball tournament.

That and a lot more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. DAVID PATERSON (D), NEW YORK: I am David Paterson and I am the governor of New York State.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: A very confident introduction from a new governor tops today's Political Ticker.

David Paterson sworn in as New York's 55th governor -- New York's first African-American governor and its first -- the first governor who's legally blind. He talked about moving on from the Eliot Spitzer scandal, but he also lightened the mood by poking some fun at himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATERSON: The last time I was in this chamber, I was gaveling in the for the State of the State. And Speaker Silver had brought me in here to practice so I didn't destroy anything

(LAUGHTER)

PATERSON: ...in our first year. But in our second year, I told the speaker, don't bother, I know how to do this. And, apparently, I was about to bring the gavel down on a glass like this one.

(LAUGHTER)

PATERSON: The speaker, at the last second, grabbed the gavel away from me and he told me in his own inimitable way, as only Shelly can, I would not allow to you turn the state of the state into a Jewish wedding.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's say congratulations to the new governor.

John McCain is using his campaign to promote March madness. He's challenging his supporters to beat his picks in the college basketball tournament. McCain's Web site now includes a section for visitors to fill out brackets with the teams they think will win. Once McCain releases his picks Thursday, a scoreboard will show how supporters' choices stack up against his and the winners will be awarded prizes. No word on what those prizes are.

Let's go back to Jack.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Do we need this? (LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: I mean do we need the guy running for president to run a bunch of brackets on March madness?

We have the war, the economy, we have Bear Stearns and he's doing, who do you like, North Carolina?

The question -- should countries boycott the Olympic Games in light of China's crackdown on protesters in Tibet?

And, by the way, David Paterson is a lot funnier than Eliot Spitzer ever was.

Jeff writes from New York: "It's a travesty. We stomp around the world fighting for freedom, except when the offender is somebody like China -- whose money we desperately need. The world should rise up, boycott everything Chinese until the people of Tibet regain their freedom. These are the most peaceful people on Earth. They should be role models for all of us. They deserve better."

Terry remembers -- he says: "I remember in the sixth grade participating in a school debate over boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. I supported that boycott. But today's world is different and so is my opinion. Go to China, enjoy the Games, take your digital cameras. The citizens will be putting on a display for you. Send your pictures to CNN. Don't get caught. Sunshine in China may be the best thing to happen to them. If you want to boycott something to really hurt China, stay out of Wal-Mart."

Brian in California writes: "Yes, boycott. China reminds one of Germany in the '30s. Will our people be safe there? And will the judging be fair, even if they do attend? Hit them economically, which is what a boycott would accomplish."

James in Canada writes: "Given Guantanamo, rendition, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, etc. the U.S. is hardly in any position to lead a human rights boycott of the Olympics."

Krake writes: "Boycotting will be late and inadequate. Allowing China to have the Olympics was the big mistake, especially since it was already known the Chinese government is a human rights abuser and cruel regime. The violence in Tibet simply highlights what was already known."

And Troy writes: "I'd rather see our athletes wear 'Free Tibet' t-shirts in Beijing during the opening ceremony. Oh Mao goodness." -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

See you tomorrow.

Coming up, Jeanne Moos talks to New Yorkers about Barack Obama's faith and finds a lot of confusion.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Like many Americans, Barack Obama takes his faith very seriously. But that's not stopping others from finding humor in the confusion over exactly what religion he practices.

Our Jeanne Moos finds all of this Moost Unusual.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You don't have to be a whiz kid to get through this quiz.

(on camera): What religion is Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muslim. He's...

MOOS: The correct answer is...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a Christian.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A Christian.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a Christian from a Muslim father.

MOOS: But in a recent NBC News/"Wall Street Journal"" poll, 13 percent still thought Obama is a Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A Muslim.

MOOS (on camera): Did you really think that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, that's what I heard.

MOOS (voice-over): Heard where, on a parody show?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE COLBERT REPORT," COURTESY COMEDY CENTRAL)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST: Barack Obama is a secret Muslim!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Just in case anyone missed Stephen Colbert's joke...

BILL MAHER: Is Obama Muslim?

No, he isn't.

MOOS: And yet, of the 65 or so folks we interviewed in Times Square...

(on camera): What religion is Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, jeeza whiz (ph).

MOOS: No, jeeza whiz is not a religion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's a (INAUDIBLE).

MOOS (voice-over): Out of 65, 10 said...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muslim.

MOOS: One couple was split.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Christian.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think he's Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know he's a Christian.

MOOS (on camera): Why do you think he's Muslim?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because that's what everybody says.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Hussein Obama.

MOOS (voice-over): Oh, that name.

But at least Hillary got the answer right when "60 Minutes" asked, you don't believe Barack Obama is a Muslim?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "60 MINUTES," COURTESY CBS NEWS)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY MSNBC)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, as far as I know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: And on the street, some added a dollop of doubt.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He says he's a Christian.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he says he's a Catholic, but I think he's a Muslim.

MOOS: So how is it that 13 percent of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because 85 percent of the American people are ignorant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stupidity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They don't read.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Americans are rednecks. We watch race cars go around and we eat fast food.

MOOS: By the way, there was another rumor about Obama racing around Times Square.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, Barack Obama is Irish.

MOOS: That's Obama with an apostrophe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY BARELYPOLITICAL.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can we really afford to trust our country to a leprechaun?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: But will the leprechaun look offset the native Somali costume?

MAHER: Barack Obama provocatively dressed as Aladdin.

MOOS (on camera): How can people not know that he's not Muslim?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they want to believe it and so they -- we hear what we want to believe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because some people never said he's going to be in office to be kind of like a -- a spy for Muslims.

MOOS (voice-over): Hey, at least hardly anyone is accusing him of being a...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A Scientologist.

MOOS: Imagine Tom Cruise taking the call.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY BARELYPOLITICAL.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The phone rings in the White House at 3:00 a.m.

Do you really want a leprechaun answering the call?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Leave it to Jeanne Moos for that.

By the way, you've helped make our politics pod cast one of the most popular on iTunes. To get the best political team to go, this is what you need to do. You can subscribe at CNNPolitics.com or you can go to iTunes. And you can also read my daily blog post at CNNPolitics.com. You might want to read it.

Thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou?

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