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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Senators Bill Nelson, Mel Martinez

Aired March 30, 2008 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's 11 a.m. here in Washington, where the cherry blossoms are now out in bloom, 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, 6 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for "Late Edition."
We'll get to my conversation with Democratic strategists James Carville and Jamal Simmons in just a moment. First, though, there have been important developments in Iraq today. By all accounts, this is turning out to be a pivotal moment in the war. Let's get the latest now from our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, who's just arrived in Baghdad. Nic, update our viewers on what is happening in this intense fighting that continues between rival Shia factions as well as the Iraqi military.

ROBERTSON: Well, we've just heard from the leader of one of the militias, Muqtada al-Sadr, who's called on his fighters to put down their weapons and to stop fighting. He's also demanded that the government have an amnesty to release people that they then captured, particularly people that have not been involved in killing.

A government spokesman has said that this is a positive development, that they welcome this initiative. There have been indirect talks between Sadr's militia and the government going on. But at this time, there is an extended curfew in Baghdad.

In Basra, the fighting continues. The offensive by Maliki's government seems to be coming to a halt. There are large areas, at least five neighborhoods in the town of Basra that the government still doesn't control. The government doesn't control the streets in the neighborhoods of Sadr City here in Baghdad.

So, it appears to be reaching an impasse. And there are calls now emerging that Maliki has miscalculated the fight, that he has gotten involved in something he cannot win militarily, and that he might have taken on this action more for political motives and perhaps cracking down just a handful of the militias, Wolf.

BLITZER: Does it look like this is one of those moments that it could get back to sort of the relative calm that we had seen over the past several months? Relative calm, I say that specifically. Or does it look like it could escalate into all-out bloodshed, much like we saw in 2006, shall we say, before the U.S. introduced 30,000 extra troops?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, there's no doubt that this past six days of fighting is something new in Iraq. We're seeing finally the internal fighting erupting among the Shia political parties and the militias that back them. At the moment, this does seem to be a pause where both sides could pull back from the brink, where they both recognize they cannot win it militarily.

Sadr stands to lose perhaps many troops, many fighters, if he continues to force them into battle. The government knows that it's not going to win these streets and neighborhoods in some of these cities, and that negotiations are the only way forward.

But at the moment, it hasn't been revolved politically, and the potential does exist for it to get worse. But at the moment, the appearance is of a pullback from the brink, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's see what happens over the next 24 to 48 hours. Nic, thanks for that. We'll have much more on that story coming up later here on "Late Edition."

Let's get to the race for the White House right now. So far, the math favors Barack Obama, but Hillary Clinton is certainly vowing to stay in the race until the Denver convention at the end of the August if necessary. This despite calls by some Obama supporters for her simply to quit.

Joining us now to talk about the Clinton/Obama contest and the implications for a prolonged primary fight, two guests, Democratic strategist James Carville, who's a Clinton supporter, and Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons is an Obama supporter. Guys, thanks for coming in.

She gave an interview yesterday in The Washington Post. It was published today. Among other things, Hillary Clinton, James, said this. "I know there are some people who want to shut this down, and I think they are wrong. I have no intention of finishing what we started and until we see what happens in the next ten contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't revolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention -- that's what the credential committees are for."

All right. Explain what she's talking about.

CARVILLE: Well, first of all, the Obama strategy seems to find some bald white guys with white hair to call on her to get out of the race. I think they'll go to McCain and get him to call on her to get out of the race.

BLITZER: You're referring to Patrick Leahy, the senator.

CARVILLE: Right. Usually, what a campaign tries to do is get the most votes and make it most possible for reconciliation after you win. This is not helping them in Pennsylvania. And seems like Senator Obama's saying, well, she can stay in. I mean, believe me, the Clinton campaign has not had one one-second meeting about getting out of the race, nor should they.

If I were the Obama campaign, I would concentrate on trying to get votes in Pennsylvania, winning North Carolina, cut the margin and then making my case stronger. Calling on her to get out of the race is not going to -- it's going to hurt him in terms of getting votes. And it is going to make it more difficult to reconcile the party.

Hint, hint, Chicago. Just go out and campaign and get the most votes you can, and then you have a better position for this. Stop sending this out because they're not going to get out. Not even considering it. And you're not going to help yourself in Pennsylvania by saying that Pennsylvanians shouldn't be allowed to vote. It's actually going to hurt you on Election Day.

BLITZER; Was it a blunder for Senator Leahy, among other Obama supporters, to publicly say to Hillary Clinton, drop out of this race?

SIMMONS: I don't know if I would say it's a blunder. I would say that this is not a time to call for that. But it is a time to call for is that there is some level of civility and focus in this race, that what we don't need to have is someone, a candidate opening up any more bloody eyes on another candidate that's going to be used by the Republicans in the fall.

We've got a common enemy in John McCain. We could talk about that. We could talk about their differences in health care, their differences on all the policy issues that people care about. But there have been so much negative vitriol going back forth and between these two campaigns.

It's time for some of that to die down. One of these two candidates is going to be the nominee, and now is not the time for us to bloody each other up.

CARVILLE: You know, I don't think this campaign has been particularly negative. I've probably said the most negative thing in the whole campaign. I think this campaign is, by and large, and particularly these candidates, have sort of conducted themselves affably. But if somehow or another, Senator Obama's campaign thinks that if they get this nomination, that somehow the Hillary attack machine is something, they're crazy.

I know these guys on her Republican side. And I know Charlie Black. I know Rick Davis. They don't care what The New York Times thinks. They don't care what Keith Olbermann thinks. They don't care.

They're going to go out -- this is powder puff stuff compared to the stuff that we're going to see in the general. And as opposed to just this constant whine of how negative the Clinton campaign is and everything, better be getting ready for a whole different ball game, because these guys are not concerned about this kind of stuff.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: A fair point, Jamal.

SIMMONS: Sure.

BLITZER: If Barack Obama can't take the heat from Hillary Clinton and James Carville and their allies, it's going to get a whole lot worse once -- if he gets the nomination.

SIMMONS: Absolutely. James Carville's been in this business a lot longer than I have, so I hate to disagree with him on this. But I do think there are some differences here.

I grew up in a family with a bunch of brothers. My brothers and I would get in big fights. My dad would sort of turn the other eye away, turn his ear away. But, you know, you couldn't sucker-punch your brother. You couldn't push your brother down the stairs or hit him with a bottle.

So, I think there's one way you fight when you're inside the family, and there's another way you fight when you go outside the house. And I think the Democrats are concerned right now because they feel like Senator Clinton is fighting Barack Obama like he's a Republican and not fighting him like he's a fellow Democrat.

And so, we don't want to have a situation where we're having people go after him on sorts of salacious issues about religion and color and all this sort of stuff. And instead, we should be having an argument about issues.

CARVILLE: I don't think, a, I don't think it was Senator Clinton that did this.

SIMMONS: Her surrogates.

CARVILLE: But I can understand -- if they -- let me -- I can take them around to right-wing world. These people don't care. They're not intimidated. And they're not interested -- and I think this campaign has by and large been relatively civil. I think it has by and large been way within the parameter of a hard-fought campaign.

What sort of concerns me, and I have said it every juncture, by the way, and Jamal knows this, that if Senator Obama is a nominee, that I would be the first in line to support him. I am just concerned, from what I see coming out of that campaign, that they're not quite aware of what they're getting ready to get hit with.

And my message is, stop getting people and saying she ought to drop out and getting your campaign to spend all their time on conference calls with these reporters and everything.

CARVILLE: That's counterproductive. It's counterproductive to getting votes and it's counterproductive that -- if you win, to reconcile this.

These supporters of Senator Clinton that have poured hundreds of millions of dollars in her campaign -- they don't like to be told that they ought to get out of the race.

And what you ought to do is, if it comes to the point where Senator Obama wins, you want to make it as easy as possible to reconcile this. This strategy, right now, is a bad strategy for that.

BLITZER: What about what she also said in The Washington Post, that she said, "Florida and Michigan have to be resolved."

The delegates from those two states are not being allowed to participate because they moved up -- the two states moved up their primaries against DNC, Democratic National Committee rules.

And she says, it has to be resolved. "We'll resolve it," she says, "at the convention. That's what the credential committee are for," meaning there's going to be, potentially, if neither of these two candidates has enough pledged or elected delegates, they're going to go to the convention and fight over Florida and Michigan.

SIMMONS: Well, Senator Obama has said all along that he thinks Florida and Michigan be dealt with; those delegates should be seated.

The question is -- and I'm, a little bit, outside of the Obama world on this, because I actually think Florida and Michigan should not be counted because they violated the rules.

And I think that, if the party is ever going to be able to exert an discipline on the process, you've got to have a situation where, if you violate the rules, you get punished, just like you do with your child. You've got do that.

Now, the difference is, here, that there are voters who voted. And so maybe the answer is you seat some of the delegates for the people who have voted but you don't seat some of the elected delegates or some of the at-large delegates that come out of this process.

I don't know. There's a lot of back-and-forth going on, on this particular topic.

But Senator Obama has said that he wants to see these delegates seated, but they shouldn't determine the outcome of the race. And that's the one difference here.

CARVILLE: I think the best thing we can do is get this thing through June the 7th.

BLITZER: First?

CARVILLE: First. And I was in North Carolina yesterday, and let me tell you, they all want to vote. And they don't want to be told -- and I saw a lot of supporters of Senator Obama. I saw a lot of supporters of Senator Clinton. They're excited about this.

And, again, what comes out of these conference calls out of Chicago, and getting these guys to call (inaudible) the race, and Senator Obama saying she can stay in the race, that is not helping them either get votes or go toward reconciliation. Wink, wink, hint, hint. Try another way, guys. This is not the way to do this.

BLITZER: All right, guys stand by. We have a lot more ground to cover. We're going to continue our conversation with James Carville and Jamal Simmons.

We'll also talk about the Democratic primary slugfest. Is it actually helping the Republican nominee, John McCain?

And this important programming note for our viewers: Later tonight, the presidential race will be a special focus of our prime time of "The Situation Room."

Please be sure to join me, beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, later tonight. "Late Edition" continues, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. Coming up, by the way, in our next hour, Florida senators Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez -- they'll be standing by, live, to weigh in on the Bush administration's plans to try to rescue the economy; what's happening in Iraq. I'll have a lot more on that, coming up in our next hour.

But right now, we're talking about the race for the White House with Democratic strategists, Clinton supporter James Carville and Obama supporter Jamal Simmons.

It's very close, in the delegate count, James, right now. The total delegates, by our estimates, CNN: Obama with 1,625; Hillary Clinton, 1,486. Remember, the key number 2,024. That's the magic number that they need in order to get the Democratic nomination wrapped up.

You see a strategy whereby she will get -- first of all, do you see any strategy where she will get more pledged votes?

CARVILLE: First of all, if she wins Pennsylvania big, comes back and wins North Carolina, yes, I can see that playing out. I can see the whole -- and, by the way, this does not include Florida and Michigan, which are about 9 percent of the Democrats.

As we said on the show before, this is like stopping one of these NCAA basketball tournament games with about 3 minutes and 20 seconds left to go in the game. Of course, they see a way to do this. I mean, there's also -- I can see any number of ways where Senator Obama does that.

My point is, if all of these Democrats want -- this race is not particularly destructive. These candidates have, I think, by and large, conducted themselves fairly well when it comes to each other.

Yes, some surrogates are going to get out and stir the pot, every now and then. But that's nothing compared to what we're going to see in the general election.

The best thing we can do, as a party, is let these candidates go, on June then 7th. Then and people are going to re-evaluate and then people are going to talk about this.

BLITZER: You agree with them on that?

SIMMONS: I agree it certainly should go to June the 7th. I mean, let each one of these contests happen. Every time we have one of these, you know what? More people show up; more people get registered; more Democrats get a chance to hear their voices heard.

BLITZER: It's good practice for whoever gets the nomination, too.

SIMMONS: Of course it is. And you know what? It's not going to happen.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: I mean, we're going to get to June 3rd or June 7th, whatever the end of this is, and I think people will make the determination.

I happen to think that what will happen, at that point, is Senator Barack Obama will be ahead by every measure. Superdelegates will take a look at this and say, you know what? He's our nominee. And people will start to move.

But if something happens and something destructive happens and Senator Obama falls apart and he can't compete in the rest of the contest, then superdelegates may go another way. I just don't see that happening with that strong a candidate.

BLITZER: Here's the concern, James, that some Democrats have, who are not necessarily partisans...

CARVILLE: I understand. I understand.

BLITZER: This was a Gallup poll. "If your candidate loses the nomination, would you vote for John McCain?" This was among Democrats.

Among Clinton supporters, 28 percent said they'd vote for McCain; Obama supporters, 19 percent said they'd vote for McCain.

And The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, "Which candidate can best unite the country?" Obama, 60 percent; McCain, 58 percent; Clinton, 46 percent.

But how worried are you that whoever feels angry among the Democrats could actually vote for McCain?

CARVILLE: Well, first of all, that's a very good point that you make. And what you want to do is reduce the possibility of that happening. And whoever emerges as the nominee, how the person that doesn't get the nomination acts and how the nominee treats that person is going to go a long way. It has to be, kind of, mutual respect here.

The Chicago crowd, the "she needs to get out" and she can stay in in they wants to," et cetera, et cetera -- that's my point. That is making that job all the more difficult. And if, whoever wins this -- you know, part of political skill and part of being president of the United States is you have to reconcile situations.

And by the way, it is Democrats that are going out and voting, basically, 50/50 in a very, very tight race. We have to recognize that as a party.

And as Jamal says, it's exciting, but we should employ strategies that make this number go smaller. And this doesn't account for when the candidates say, OK, we've been treated with respect here; we've had this process; we'll move forward, this number is going to drop dramatically.

SIMMONS: Well, here's where I disagree a little bit. It hasn't been a 50/50 contest. And in fact, what you've seen is, Barack Obama has been ahead for a long time.

BLITZER: But in the popular vote, it's about 51/49.

SIMMONS: Well, he's 700,000 votes ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Well, if you don't count Florida and Michigan. OK, I'm just saying...

SIMMONS: Hey, look, you know, we've all been through these contests. We've all, you know -- George Bush was a couple votes ahead on the Supreme Court when he became president. You know, I mean, so being ahead counts. And so we can't say that it doesn't.

But I think what's going on here is that we talk about what's going to happen in this contest, have there been any blows. You know, a lot of Democrats are upset at the way Senator Clinton and her surrogates have behaved in the race.

The other day when the Bosnia story happened, and Senator Clinton brought us back to Rev. Wright, it was clear that a lot of that was happening because of her own political needs. And it kind of stoked the flames again on the Rev. Wright controversy even though she was in the middle of her own sort of Bosnia fable controversy.

So I think that, you know, how this fight keeps going is important. And people on both sides of the fence feel very aggrieved at the other people. so we've got to be careful.

CARVILLE: Let me amend my statement. I don't normally do that. All right. It's going 50.5 to 49.5, OK?

The point is that this thing has hardly been some kind of an overwhelming thing. The second point I want to make is that Senator Clinton responding to the question, if they think when they get to the general election, that these Republicans and these right-wing interest group, et cetera, et cetera, are not going to bring this up and about 100 other things, they're living in a world that is a fantasy world. And again, I'm going to go back to, this is a remarkably close race that Senator Clinton has not given one-tenth of an iota of a second of getting out of, and this has not been a particularly negative race.

BLITZER: All right, let me -- Jamal, you want to ask him a question? But very quickly.

SIMMONS: Just answer very quickly. Again, this isn't about the internal fight. I don't think anybody in Chicago is nervous about fighting Republicans.

BLITZER: Chicago, by the way, is where the headquarters for the Obama campaign.

SIMMONS: Where the Obama headquarters is. But I do think there is a certain way that you campaign, that you fight when you're fighting intramurally inside the family, inside the Democratic family. And there's another way you fight when you go outside and fight Republicans. And so, I think when it's time to fight Republican, every Democrat will be there taking blows and throwing blows, and we'll be ready to win.

CARVILLE: Well, I only think there's been one thing that's gone out of bounds and somebody -- a supporter of, although not an employee of Senator Clinton called somebody a Judas. That's the only thing I know that's gone on (inaudible).

(LAUGHTER)

CARVILLE: But I think everything else has been pretty much in the paint.

SIMMONS: I'm still trying to figure out which one of the Clintons is Jesus Christ in that scenario.

CARVILLE: That would be you. That would be you.

BLITZER: James Carville, thanks very much for coming in. Jamal Simmons, thanks to you as well.

Coming up next, there's some breaking news to tell you about, a small business jet crashing into a neighborhood southwest of London. You're looking at these live pictures. We'll share with you what we know, what we don't know. That and a lot more coming up right here on "Late Edition."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There has been a plane crash not far from London. Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring what we're learning. We're siege the live pictures coming in. What do we know, Fred?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, all the details are just now emerging. But what we understand is a light aircraft has crashed in the area called Farnborough Kent, which is an area if you recall as you fly into Heathrow Airport, it is an area that you generally fly over, kind of a remote, almost farmland, if you will.

Well, this light plane, we don't know any more details about how many people may have been on board or what exactly what may have occurred just prior to this collision into these buildings here. Nor do we know how many people might be occupying these buildings. Details are just now coming in.

But you can see the firefighters are on the scene there, trying to put out the flames, this clearly becoming a fiery crash there, not far from London, this taking place in Farnborough Kent. This is the situation right now.

Sorry for those color bars there, but this plane crash taking place moments ago. We're just now able to bring you these images. You can see right there more clearly the structure that has been impacted there. Let's hope that nobody was inside what appears to be a residence, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope indeed. All right, Fred, we'll stay on top of this and you'll update us as we get more information. Fred, thank you very much.

Coming up next on "Late Edition," he's comparing President Bush's assessment of the war in Iraq to a fairy tale. The maverick Republican Senator Chuck Hagel offering his own blunt assessment of the war. That's coming up.

And please be sure to join me tonight for a special primetime edition of "The Situation Room." Our coverage begins 8 p.m. Eastern later tonight. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska certainly does not follow his party's line when it comes to the war in Iraq. I spoke with the senator earlier in the week.

And joining us now, Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. He's the author of an important new book, a very powerful personal book, entitled "America, Our Next Chapter: Tough questions, Straight answers."

Senator Hagel, congratulations on writing on the book. Thanks for coming in.

HAGEL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you poured your gut into this book. But let's talk, a little bit, about what's happening in Iraq right now.

Today the president delivered a relatively upbeat assessment of the successes so far, as he defined them. I want to play a little clip for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In Baghdad, we've worked with Iraqi security forces to greatly diminish the sectarian violence and civilian deaths. We've broken the grip of Al Qaida on the capital. We've weakened the influence of Iranian-backed militias. We've dramatically improved security conditions in many devastated neighborhoods, in what some have deemed a re-liberation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, now, he was speaking just as there is an escalated round of fighting going on, not necessarily between Iraqi government forces and U.S. forces against Sunni insurgents but against fellow Shiite insurgents, if you will, the Muqtada al-Sadr forces.

What is going on?

HAGEL: Well, first, I don't know exactly what's going on, Wolf, but I would offer this assessment based on what I do know.

First, let's look at the south. We, the United States, and the Maliki government have essentially left the south alone. And that has allowed Shia warlords to essentially control the south. And we have been paying them tribute to have access to the pipelines, to the ports. And the reason that's been quiet down in that area is that we just have left it alone.

BLITZER: And the British forces evacuated that area, basically, as well?

HAGEL: That's right. So this has been hanging out there for some time. And it was a matter of time as to when and which of the Shia warlords would start to move to take control.

And when Maliki started to move his forces down into the south to address the Basra issue, this in fact erupted, which then set in motion a whole series of events.

The green zone, as you know, has been under attack four days in a row. There's serious fighting in Baghdad. The Sunni situation in Anbar province and west, I think that's very tenuous. We've got 90,000 of those people on our payroll at $300 a month.

So this has been percolating for some time. And I'm not surprised.

BLITZER: So here's the question. Some of his critics, the president's critics saying, you know, he's basically ignoring reality on the ground in Iraq right now. And some of his severe critics say he's living in a dream world.

What do you say, as someone who has criticized him over these years?

HAGEL: Well, I think this is another episode of Alice in Wonderland, what's up is down and what's down is up. What do you mean stability and security? Baghdad, for example, has been, over the last year, essentially, ethnically divided. You've separated the Sunnis and the Shias. And to somehow make some assertion that things are looking much, much better in Baghdad and it's calm again and it's back to where it used to be is just not the case.

And when you look at the casualties the United States has taken since the so-called military surge, over 900 deaths; you look at almost 30,000 wounded and the money we've put in there -- and then the other point of this is, too, if, in fact, the surge has calmed things to a point where the president and others are saying, well, they've done a great service and they've achieved some terrific things, why then is the administration talking about keeping more American troops in Iraq for the remainder of this year than we had before the surge?

So, no, this is still a very dangerous unstable, serious, dangerous situation in Iraq.

BLITZER: You've served with all three of these remaining presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton. They're all senators. You know them well. Who is most qualified among these three to be the next commander in chief?

HAGEL: First, I know all three, as you say. I've served with all three. I am not going to endorse a candidate for president today by saying who I believe is the most qualified to be commander in chief. That will play out, Wolf. The American people will make that decision.

I've not endorsed anyone for president. And I've not endorsed anyone partially because I want whoever those final two candidates are to explain to the American people how they are going to unwind American involvement in this fiasco in Iraq and what their foreign policy is going to look like over the next four years. We've done terrible damage to our country around the world.

BLITZER: So, without endorsing any candidate, as far as the Iraq policies they've enunciated, whether it's McCain or Obama or Clinton, whose Iraq strategy, as you've heard it, do you like the most?

HAGEL: Well, obviously, what I've heard, like the American people have heard, is McCain, on one side, saying we'll stay there until there's victory and whatever it takes, we're going to win.

On the other side, both Obama and Clinton have both said, we're coming out.

That's not good enough. Because each of the two final candidates are going to have to enunciate how we are coming out; how responsibly are we coming out? Under what basis? Under what timeline?

I don't agree with John McCain -- and you know this, Wolf. I think John and the president and others have put the Iraqi situation in the wrong context.

This isn't a win or lose. The Iraqi people will decide whether they want -- the government they want in place and when. We can help them. But we shouldn't be framing this up as win or lose. Because, when we do that -- and this is where I have a major disagreement with McCain -- then, on that basis, we'll be there forever. Because the Iraqis are going to have to find some political accommodation, some political reconciliation to fix this, just as General Petraeus said.

Petraeus said, a week ago, that the biggest disappointment, the biggest failure there, over the last year, after and during the surge, has been very little political progress, which, in the end, is all that's going to matter.

BLITZER: So, bottom line, right now, at this point, you have an open mind. And you could endorse, in the end, any one of these three?

HAGEL: Or I may not endorse anyone.

BLITZER: Is that possible, you think?

HAGEL: Sure, it is. I may not endorse any of the candidates. But I do think this is so serious for the future of our country and for the world that we get this right over the next four years, because of the terrible blunder that we made, here, over the last few years.

BLITZER: You've known Obama since he came into the Senate. He's on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Have you seen anything that points to him -- any strengths that he's shown, in terms of his Senate record?

HAGEL: I've cooperated with Obama and I have co-sponsored with Obama a number of pieces of legislation, one being a new nonproliferation bill, which I'm very proud of.

I think Obama is a very bright, agile, intuitive, not only politician, but individual. John McCain is bright, experienced, smart. Hillary Clinton is certainly experienced and smart.

I think any of those three is qualified to be president of the United States. What kind of a president they'd be, no one can tell.

BLITZER: All right. I want to just read one quote from the book, because it's a powerful quote, and get your explanation.

"So why did we invade Iraq? I believe it was the triumph of the so-called neoconservative ideology, as well as Bush administration arrogance and incompetence, that took America into this war of choice. They obviously made a convincing case to a president with very limited national security and foreign policy experience who keenly felt the burden of leading the nation in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil."

But the words "arrogance" and "incompetence" jumped out at me. Do you want to elaborate on what you meant by writing those words?

HAGEL: Sure. Well, I did write those words and I meant it and I still mean it. And I think it was arrogance and incompetence that put this country in such a hole, here, around the world -- arrogance meaning that they wouldn't listen to anyone. They didn't listen to our allies.

Every major leader in the Middle East that I talked to, and I certainly know the president and others talked to, before we invaded Iraq, warned the president, warned the vice president, warned Secretary Powell not to do this. Even a number of senior Israeli officials warned them not to do it.

Members of Congress asked questions. I was among those who said, wait a minute; slow down; let the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency officials finish their job; slow this train down.

They wouldn't listen to anybody. It was just raw arrogance.

Incompetence? I think it was incompetence. They wouldn't look at history. They didn't look at that part of the world, the complications, the combustibility. They didn't factor in the context of consequences for their actions, to get us into a war.

You know, I quote Eisenhower in the book, in saying -- he said this in the 1950s, that America should never put American troops in the Middle East; don't get bogged down in that kind of a war.

HAGEL: Other great leaders have said the same thing. And there was both, in my opinion, arrogance and incompetence that led us into this.

BLITZER: Senator Hagel's book is entitled "America, Our Next Chapter. Tough Questions, Straight Answers." Senator, thanks for coming in.

HAGEL: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, the Iraq war's impact on a very volatile Middle East. We'll talk about it with two experts on the region. What is going on? Stay with us. Aaron Miller walking in right now, Martin Fletcher waiting in Tel Aviv.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Supporters of the invasion of Iraq had hoped that the end of Saddam Hussein's regime would open up the door to democracy spreading across the Middle East. But is the war having a negative impact on the region and undermining Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts. Let's discuss.

Joining us from you from Israel is Martin Fletcher. He's the veteran Tel Aviv bureau chief for NBC News. He's the author of a brand-new book entitled "Breaking News," his personal reflections on covering the Middle East now for some three decades.

Also joining us here in Washington is Aaron David Miller. He's a former State Department official, an adviser to several U.S. secretaries of state and presidents. And he's also the author of a new book entitled, "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

I want to thank both of you for coming in. Thanks for writing these two important powerful books.

And Aaron, I'm going to start with you. And we'll get to the books shortly. But let's discuss the region as a whole, including Iraq, what's going on right now these past several days, the fighting between Iraqi military forces and Shiite militias. Here's what the president said the other day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq. There have been other defining moments up to now, but this is a defining moment as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How important is what's happenings on the ground right now, in terms of the future of Iraq, what happens to U.S. troops there and the region as a whole?

MILLER: I think it's critical, but it's just another ticktock in a long and never-ending story of "Gulliver," America wandering around in a world of small tribes that we don't understand. And we're having an extremely difficult time dealing with it.

BLITZER: So what does that mean in terms of what the U.S. should be doing here?

MILLER: It means that we're in an investment trap, Wolf. We cannot fix the situation in Iraq, and we can't extricate ourselves from it. We worst-cased the threat -- there were no weapons of mass destruction -- and we best-cased the outcome. The notion that Iraq would somehow be a domino-inspirer of falling democracies -- in this case, rising democracies, has proven to be a flawed theory.

American prestige and credibility is really at risk. And it's had no impact, frankly, on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Not that anybody though it would.

BLITZER: Martin, based on what we're hearing from Aaron, it sounds like it doesn't make any difference what the U.S. in the long term winds up doing in Iraq. It's going to chaotic. It's going to be a mess. And in the end, it's going to be unsuccessful for what the U.S. had hoped would be achieved in that part of the world. I wonder if you want to weigh in.

FLETCHER: Well, I think it matters very much, Wolf, because although the United States's presence in Iraq definitely, as Aaron says, has created a real combat (ph) here in the Middle East. Nations not respecting America's ability to do what it wants and therefore feeling freer themselves to go ahead with their ambitions.

And of course, we see that Iran, their support for Hezbollah in south Lebanon, with their support for Gaza south of Israel, and Israel now paying the price for that. America's credibility has definitely been severely damaged by its actions in Iraq, and that definitely makes it harder for its allies in the regions to go ahead with their goals. Of course in Israel's case, that is to reach some kind of agreement with the Palestinians because Hezbollah, Hamas, they've been empowered by America's failure in Iraq.

BLITZER: Which leads to this question, Martin, and I'm going to let Aaron weigh in on it as well. Is Israel more secure or less secure as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq?

FLETCHER: I'd say more secure, definitely, for the time being. Certainly, when America invaded Iraq in the beginning, the Israeli government was joyful. Despite the debate within the government, they nevertheless felt the fall of Saddam Hussein meant that their border to the East has been strengthened. Jordan and then nobody, no threat to the east of Jordan.

Today, of course, that's not as clear as (inaudible). But nevertheless, the way things are today, Israel's definitely been strengthened by the fall of Saddam Hussein. As I mentioned earlier, the threat from Iran, the threat from Iranian proxies on Israel's borders is very, very real.

BLITZER: What do you think?

MILLER: I think the nature of the strategic threat has changed. After all, Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. And in invading Iraq, we essentially leveled the playing field for the Iranians. We eliminated the Taliban, we eliminated Saddam. And on the watch of this president, it may we will be that Iran will of cross the threshold with respect to weaponization.

BLITZER: You're saying that the invasion of Iraq has strengthened Iran, which in turn has hurt Israel. Is that what you're saying?

MILLER: I think in the long term, that's true. And Martin's point on proxies is absolutely correct. We've got two small non-state actors, Hamas and Hezbollah, which frankly pose an immediate threat, not a long-term threat, an immediate threat to Israeli security. So, on balance, I don't think it's been a wash. I think it's been a deficit.

BLITZER: Here's what Obama said on Friday, Martin, in terms of U.S. discussions with Iran. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Since 9/11, the conventional wisdom has been that you've got to look tough on foreign policy by voting and acting like the Republicans. And I disagree with that. And so, for example, she, like McCain and Bush, said you shouldn't talk to leaders of countries like Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What are they saying over there in Israel about U.S. actually getting into a serious dialogue with Iran?

FLETCHER: Israel wants stronger sanctions on Iran, and that's what they want. They don't want America talking to Iran. But having said that, it's clear that you need to talk to your enemies. You need to if you're going to reach some kind of understanding along the road.

So, there's a debate within Israel. On the one hand, tougher sanctions against Iran, sanctions that really works, supported by the world community. But at the same time, there's a need to talk to Iran, and America is the only, really, interlocutor that can influence Iran at the moment. Because, as Aaron pointed out, Iran has been the overall winner of America's attack on Iraq.

Iran has been strengthened right across the board.

FLETCHER: And, of course, let's not forget the price of oil, over $100. Iran, 70 million people, oil over $100 a barrel. It puts Iran in a very strong position, regionally.

BLITZER: Here's what you write in your new book, Aaron, "The Much Too Promised Land," among other things. "Arab-Israeli peace was not key to protecting America's interest in the wake of 9/11, but abandoning it wholesale weakened our friends, emboldened our enemies, and undermined our image and credibility when we needed them most."

Go ahead and elaborate.

MILLER: I mean, I think that's right. I mean, Arab-Israeli peace is a key to American interests; it's not the key.

And as a baseball fan, I pay a lot of attention to the words of the late, great Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, who said that the key to good management was keeping the nine guys who hate your guts away from the nine guys who haven't made up their mind.

There's a lot of people out in this region, in the Arab and Muslim world who haven't made up their minds about America. This issue, the Arab-Israeli issue, resonates profoundly and deeply. And we need to do a better job of managing it.

BLITZER: Here's what you write in "Breaking News," your new book, Martin. And I'll read a little paragraph from the book.

"Imagine this: Murderers are trying to kill your kids, yet every day at work, it's your job to interview the murderers. I kissed my sons goodbye in the morning, then went to the West Bank and listened to al-Aqsa fighters tell me how many Jews they wanted to kill. One day I interviewed Jewish victims of suicide bombers; the next day I interviewed bombers and the men who sent them."

A very personal account of what you've been going through all of these years. Tell us what -- you know, what's happening right now?

Is there any prospect that President Bush's initiative, which he announced at Annapolis last November, to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict this year, is going to be achieved? FLETCHER: No chance. There's no chance that the peace is going to break out this year between Israel and the Palestinians. I don't think, really, anybody expects it. I think they're really trying to put another kind, another form of road map on the table which can then be a guide for the future, when the situation is better between Israel and the Palestinians and also, of course, between Hamas and Fatah, Abu Mazen and Hamas in Gaza.

So there's a lot of "ifs" at the moment. But you know, the people that I speak in the West Bank, for instance, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who I became very familiar with, a certain group of them, anyway, in the Bal-Ata (ph) refugee camp in Nablus, they all wanted to stop fighting at least two years ago.

At least two years ago, they said, we've had enough. And Israelis have also said, we've had enough. And I personally believe that, if there was an agreement on the table, ready to be signed, at least 60 percent, 65 percent of the Palestinians and the same of Israelis would sign it, or would want to sign it, almost regardless of the details, because they've had it up to here with this conflict.

BLITZER: Aaron?

MILLER: Nobody ever lost money betting against Arab-Israeli peace in this administration, either. But there's one positive reality, I think, we really do have to acknowledge.

And that is this. For the first time in the history, literally in the history of Palestinian/Israeli conflict, you've got two guys, a Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and an Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who have had hours, hours of discussion, between the two of them, on the four core issues -- serious discussion to resolve (ph) their conflict, Jerusalem, borders, and security.

And it may we will be that implementing anything they agree will be impossible -- and I agree with Martin -- but there is still the possibility that, by year's end, a piece of paper could be reached. And that indeed would be important.

BLITZER: All right. We'll leave it on that upbeat note, relatively speaking. Everything's relative in the Middle East.

Aaron Miller's book is entitled "The Much Too Promised Land." Martin Fletcher's book is entitled "Breaking News."

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

And this programming note for our views. Please be sure to join me tonight for a special prime time edition of "The Situation Room." We'll be focusing in on the presidential race. Our coverage begins 8:00 p.m. Eastern tonight. "Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We have this rough patch right now in our economy. But I'm confident in the long term we'll come out stronger than ever before.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: U.S. voters jittery about an ailing economy. We'll discuss that and more with Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez.

The Iraq war, year six. A conversation with Chile's United Nations ambassador, Heraldo Munoz, on where things stand and his new book, "The Solitary War."

Democrats duel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: There are some folks saying we ought to stop these elections.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: It's like a good movie that lasted about half an hour too long.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: While McCain looks ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: We are united. Now our job is to energize our party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Insight and analysis from three of the best political team on television. "Late Edition's" second hour begins right now. You still have some time to see some remarkable cherry blossoms here in the nation's capital. Come to Washington. Visit if you want.

Welcome back. Let's get to our conversation with senators Martinez and Nelson in just a moment. But first, we've been following the breaking story out of England now, a small plane crashing into a residential area outside of London. Fredricka Whitfield has been monitoring what we know from our update desk in Atlanta. What do we know, Fred?

WHITFIELD: Well, Wolf, about 40 miles southeast of London, a small plane crashed into a residential area. And people in the community say they heard this low-flying plane in the area shortly before it impacted a brick building. It's unclear exactly who may have occupied this one brick building or whether there were multiple families, et cetera.

Scotland Yard is saying there are walking wounded. However, on the plane, two pilots and three passengers, all of whom who are unaccounted for. One pilot who was apparently going to land at a nearby airport of Biggin Hill said that he heard on the radio a mayday call from that very ill-fated flight, and that the pilot from this ill-fated flight said that he was experiencing severe engine vibrations, and alarms could be heard going off in the cockpit.

So the end result here, this small plane crashing into what appears to be one singular brick residential building in this fairly remote but residential area there in Farnborough Kent, just outside of London. Investigators as well as firefighters on the scene there trying to put out the flames, and the smoke can be seen from very far away rising from this brick building.

So of course, when we get any more information on what's taking place here, southeast of London involving a small aircraft, a light aircraft is how it's being described, we'll be able to bring that to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. We'll check back with you. Let's get back to the race for the White House, among other subjects. The presidential campaign remaining at a boiling point this past week as the Democrats battle for the nomination, and Senator John McCain turned his attention to November.

Let's discuss this and more with two guests. Joining us now, senators from the same state but with very different points of view. The former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Senator Mel Martinez, is joining us from Orlando, and in Jacksonville, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. He's endorsed Hillary Clinton. Senator Nelson also this week issued a major proposal to try to completely restructure the primary campaigns and to actually do away with the electoral college system in the general election.

We'll discuss all of that, senators, in a moment. But I want to talk about Iraq, what's happening right now, and play for you a rather upbeat assessment we heard earlier in the week from President Bush on -- coinciding, in effect, with the fifth anniversary of the start of the war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The surge is doing what it was designed to do. It's helping Iraqis reclaim security and restart political and economic life. It is bringing America closer to a key strategic victory in the war against these extremists and radicals.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is he right, Senator Nelson?

NELSON: Our military, you give them a job, they're going to do it, and they're going to do it well. But that doesn't solve the problem in Iraq. You've got to get political reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shiites. And within the Shiites, there are several warring factions, and we're seeing that played out in Basra as we speak.

So, the fact is, the president put way too much a rosy picture because he just focused on the military. Military's doing their job very well.

BLITZER: We heard earlier, Senator Martinez, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel basically say this is a fairy tale, "Alice in Wonderland" assessment from the president, what's up is down. He's very gloomy. As you know, he's been a severe critic of the president's strategy for the past few years.

How worried are you, Senator Martinez, that right now this is a turning point, a potential pivotal point, as the president himself says, and it could go either way?

MARTINEZ: Well, clearly, Wolf, this is a critical point. The Shia militias cannot be allowed to go unfettered all throughout Iraq. And so, when President or Prime Minister Maliki decided to take them on in Basra, this is a sign of progress. This is a sign that the Iraqi military feels sufficiently confident that they can take the fight to the enemy, that they in fact have pacified now the Sunni insurgency, and they're moving now towards the Shia militias.

It is critical to know now whether they can in fact succeed militarily. But in addition to that, today there are also some signs that maybe this is leading to a political reconciliation, which is long overdue. If we can create the kind of political reconciliation among Shia militants that we have done with the Sunnis, we'll be well on our way to the kind of political reconciliation that I know President Bush as well as Senator Nelson has said is in fact what needs to take place.

It isn't just a military solution. It's critical that political reconciliation take place. However, you cannot do that when there are militias that are even out of the control of the very radical Muqtada al-Sadr.

BLITZER: All right. Let's -- unless you want to respond to that, Senator Nelson? Otherwise, I want to move on to the economy.

NELSON: No. You can move on.

BLITZER: Let's talk about what's happening in the economy right now. John McCain offered this assessment in terms of a general philosophy in dealing with the mortgage meltdown, the subprime crisis, and I want to play it for you. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I've always been committed to the principle that it's not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they're big banks or small borrowers.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Is he right?

NELSON: Are you asking me?

BLITZER: Senator Nelson.

NELSON: Well, he's right until you get to a point where the economy starts into a meltdown. And then the question is, is there going to be government rescue?

If the government didn't do anything in the 1930s, we would have been in a heck of a fix. And we're in that kind of situation today. You're seeing how these banks and these investment banks are overextended, and now we see how this is playing out in the private marketplace where people are hurting.

They can't afford these adjustable-rate mortgages. They can't make their mortgage payments. And so the question is, is the government going to get in and give them some assistance? And I think clearly the answer to that has to be yes.

BLITZER: Here's what Senator Clinton, Senator Martinez, said about McCain's philosophy, McCain's approach, as he expressed it this week in his economic speech: "It sounds remarkably like Herbert Hoover, and I don't think that's good economic policy. The government has a number of tools at its disposal. I think that inaction has contributed to the problems we face today, and I believe further inaction would exacerbate those problems." What do you think?

MARTINEZ: Well, I don't think her solution is a good one either. I have to say that for her to simply freeze foreclosures, which is a nice though, just wouldn't work. But I would give Senator McCain an incomplete. He stated the obvious, which is that we cannot rescue those who made poor investments and poor decisions.

However, where I think he fell short, and I think you will agree with me, is the fact that we need to do some things that can help families, that can help people. I believe that to modernize the FHA, which is long overdue, is something that would have a good and strong impact without it being a bailout of bad investments. So, I would hope that tomorrow, when we go back after our Easter recess, that we will work across partisan lines, Republicans and Democrats, to come together with a package of solutions that are realistic about those things which can be done. There are some things that need to be done that we can do without a bailout of investors who made bad investments, that are focused on families, focused on solutions that we can do through FHA and other mechanisms.

BLITZER: And Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, Senator Nelson, he says it is time for the government to step in. He's got some new initiatives that he wants to push through, but they're long term.

He said this the other day. He said on Thursday, "This latest episode has highlighted that the world has changed, as has the role of other non-backed financial institutions and the interconnectedness among all financial institutions."

BLITZER: "These changes require us all to think more broadly about the regulatory and supervisory framework."

It's a more assertive involvement, more regulation if you will. You're on board with that, I assume.

NELSON: Yes, sir. And that's an important clue that the Bush administration is realizing that the private marketplace isn't going to handle this on its own. Paulson is calling for greater regulation. And if some of those regulatory agencies hadn't been asleep at the switch, we might not be in as bad a shape as we are now.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Senator Martinez, as someone who supports John McCain, that if the economy in November is as rough as it is right now, and maybe it could even get worse for all we know, that the normal tradition is that the power -- the party in power in the White House pays the price at the ballot box and not only McCain would suffer but Republican candidates in the House and Senate would go down as well?

MARTINEZ: Wolf, there's also a divided government. The Democrats are in control of the Congress, and there is a great deal that Congress can do. I believe that Secretary Paulson is just correct in what he says.

We have regulation occurring at about four different places. These institutions have evolved tremendously in a world marketplace since the days of the Great Depression when these institutions were put in place. We need greater regulation over all financial institutions, that Congress can act.

We need to regulate Fannie and Freddie, two giants in the industry that are not well-regulated today. I put a lot of responsibility on the Congressional leadership in the hands of the Democrats to get some things done to reach across party lines to reach to us Republicans that want to work with them. I look forward to working with Senator Dodd and others on the Banking Committee so that we can move these ideas forward.

BLITZER: All right.

MARTINEZ: It is time to act.

NELSON: Wolf?

BLITZER: Yeah. NELSON: Where we are right now is an example that the Bush administration has paid more attention to Wall Street instead of Main Street. And you know, it's time to start changing, and I think Paulson at least has given some indication we're going to change.

BLITZER: All right. Let me get both of you to weigh in on Senator Nelson's sweeping proposal for electoral reform, not only in the primary system but to basically do away, to abolish the electoral college. . You say it's unfair. There should simply be a popular vote, Senator Nelson, who should be elected president of the United States.

As you know, that would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. That's virtually impossible to conceive, given the small states, their interest in prolonging, keeping the electoral college alive. Otherwise, these presidential candidates are not going to pay much attention to them. Ho you do you get over that hurdle?

NELSON: Well, you have to start somewhere, and I don't think anybody in America is satisfied with the mess that we're in now. And the proposal that I put out has many, many things. Mel and I live in a state where it's a lot easier to vote now because of some of the troubles that we've had.

Things like early voting for two weeks before the election, absentee ballots on demand. Let's restructure this crazy primary system that has penalized our state and where states were jumping ahead of each other. And if you keep doing it we'll have the first primaries in Halloween. You know, it's time for reform on the principle of one person, one vote. Let the ballot count.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to quickly let Senator Martinez, former chairman of the Republican Party, respond.

MARTINEZ: Well, I first can't let Senator Nelson's cheap shot at the president stand. I really don't think that the president has only worried about Wall Street. I think he's also worried about Main Street. A lot of the proposals he put forward on reform for the housing industry and on the mortgage crisis reflect that.

But let me say on the situation, I agree with Bill that we have got to go ahead and reform the primary system, but I'm not ready to junk the electoral college. I think the balance we've had in our nation, which has been so wise for centuries, two centuries, of having small and large states participate in the election of our president, I think ought to be preserved.

But I totally agree with Bill that we need to redo the primary. We need to regionalize them and come up with a sequential way of doing them that takes out the kind of nonsense we've had this year.

BLITZER: All right, senators, thanks to both of you for coming in. Senator Martinez, Senator Nelson, always good to have both of you on "Late Edition."

NELSON: Thanks, Wolf.

MARTINEZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. We've got a lot more to come here on this program. Heraldo Munoz, a top diplomat from Chile, with a startling account of the pressure tactics the Bush administration used to try to gather support for the war in Iraq. He's written openly about it. My conversation with him, that's coming up live.

And remember, please join me for a special primetime edition of "The Situation Room" later tonight, 8 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN. "Late Edition" continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. The Bush administration's vigorous diplomatic campaign to try to gain support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is well-known. But did it backfire, creating bitterness and mistrust among key U.S. allies?

My next guest was the president of the United Nations Security Council during the build-up to the war. And his answer is yes. Heraldo Munoz is the Chilean ambassador to the United Nations. He lays it all out in his brand-new book entitled, "A Solitary War: A Diplomat's Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lessons." The ambassador's joining us now from New York. Thanks very much for coming in.

MUNOZ: Thanks for inviting me.

BLITZER: Here's among other things what you said in the book. You say this: "I the aftermath of the invasion, allies loyal to the United States were rejected, mocked, and even 'punished' in America because of their positions to avoid war or to pursue it solely under strict conditions."

You also write about the pressure tactics that were used on your government and other governments to try to get you to support the invasion of Iraq. Just elaborate a little bit on what was going on.

MUNOZ: Well, indeed I think there was a strong difference between the United States on the one hand and several other countries that doubted that it was needed to use force in Iraq and wanted concrete evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction before authorizing the use of force. And therefore, they advocated the use of diplomacy, the exhaustion, the exploration of all diplomatic avenues before authorizing the use of force.

BLITZER: What kind of pressure did you feel?

MUNOZ: Well, at that moment, I know that there were attempts by my own government, the government of Chile, of President Lagos at that time, in connection even with Tony Blair, to find an alternative that would mean a strong benchmarks, strong tasks that Saddam Hussein had to do, in a reduced time limit, in order to make sure whether there were weapons of mass destruction or not, and then to make a decision whether to use force.

BLITZER: All right. But I want you to tell our viewers...

MUNOZ: And that, unfortunately, was not accepted by the United States.

BLITZER: But tell our viewers what threats were leveled against your government, that you write about, threats leveled by the Bush administration. MUNOZ: Well, there are documents, enough evidence -- and I was a witness to that -- that, for example, with Chile, there was a free trade agreement that was being negotiated, and there were insinuations that that would be delayed, if not put totally on the back burner, as regards others that were being negotiated.

And as regards Angola, for example, there was also a member of the Security Council that had to vote and that was undecided. There were warnings regarding funds coming from the Millennium development goal, so that, to different countries, there were different insinuations that there would be costs if we didn't endorse to go to war.

BLITZER: But did the Bush administration actually implement punitive measures on Chile as a result of your concerns of going to war?

MUNOZ: Well, we stood our ground because we thought that principles were at stake, that the only way to authorize the use of force is through the Security Council, as we did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And then the whole international community was behind the United States and even paid for that war and put troops on the ground.

In this case, it wasn't the case, and we disagreed strongly. And I would say that the costs were minimal. Because, in the case of Chile, the free trade agreement already had ten rounds of negotiations. And, if the United States didn't negotiate a free trade agreement with Chile, what other country in Latin America (inaudible) going to do it? Therefore...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying, Ambassador...

MUNOZ: The cost was a delay. The cost was a delay in the process but not something significant. (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: There were threats. There were threats that were leveled, that you felt, but that were never really implemented.

MUNOZ: Truly, yes. They were not truly implemented because, evidently, the international agenda is a lot more than simply the Iraq war.

But I think the United States paid a cost. Because, in Latin America, in Europe, today, the United States is less trusted. There is a lingering mistrust that is seen in polls.

I have seen a poll that I put in the book of the Marshall Fund that demonstrates that the United States, in terms of prestige and trust, has declined, at the end of last year, as regards 2002, from about 33 percent to about 21 percent, even in England, a strong ally.

And you see how many troops have been withdrawn by those that went with the United States to Iraq, thousands of troops, thousands of troops that have been withdrawn because that represents a political cost to those countries.

BLITZER: Let's talk, for a second, about who was right and who was wrong. President Bush says going to war, even without the weapons of mass destruction being found, if there were any, was the smart thing, the right thing to do. Here's what he said this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: So we're helping the people of Iraq establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

A free Iraq will be an example for others of the power of liberty to change societies and to displace despair with hope.

By spreading the hope of liberty in the Middle East, we will help free societies take root. And when they do, freedom will yield the peace that we all desire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president said that on March 19th.

Mr. Ambassador, looking back, the war now in its sixth year, who was right, your government or the Bush administration?

MUNOZ: Well, I think we were right. Because there were no weapons of mass destruction. And I think we were right because this ended up being a quagmire, a tremendous cost for the international community, for the United States, for the U.S. Treasury.

So I think, in that sense, we were right, and also because the United States, after saying that the U.N. Security Council was irrelevant, because they had not authorized the use of force, backtracked and came back to the U.N. to seek for help, once the war began getting tough on the ground.

And we sent special envoys like Brahimi that negotiated the interim government, the new constitution, and the government that is today in Iraq.

And let us not forget, also, that, at one moment, the first expression of sovereignty was a governing council that was negotiated by Sergio Vieira de Mello, that was sent by the United Nations and who died in a bombing in Baghdad, along with 22 U.N. staff.

BLITZER: We remember.

MUNOZ: So I think we contributed a great deal to that, and I think the evidence is on our side, even though we sympathize with the United States. We sympathize with the troops that are there and we wish the best to those that are in harm's way.

But the point is that the United States has to realize that the United Nations is without substitute, that it has a credibility that no other organization has. And that, I think, is an issue that the U.S. should reflect very carefully about. BLITZER: Ambassador Heraldo Munoz's book is entitled "A Solitary War: A Diplomat's Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lesson." He's Chile's ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks for coming in.

MUNOZ: Thanks to you.

BLITZER: In just a few moments, our political panel will take on a very wild week here in the United States in the world of politics and the race for the White House. Up next, we'll also go live to the campaign trail for updates on the candidates, what they're doing today.

Stay with us. "Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are going after each other, we're getting ready for a special "Situation Room" prime time special later tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern. I'll be anchoring "The Situation Room" in prime time, 8 p.m. Eastern, later tonight.

Let's find out what the candidates are doing on this Sunday. Dana bash is in Meridian, Mississippi, right now. The latest turn of events in Iraq could have an enormous impact on Senator John McCain's presidential ambitions.

Dana, what is the senator doing today?

And what are they saying about what's happening in Iraq right now and the potential fallout on his presidential ambition?

BASH: Well, you're right, Wolf. I mean, there is no question that anything that happens -- in fact, Senator McCain admits anything that happens, in terms of negative news coming out of Iraq, could have a negative effect on his campaign.

BASH: He says that his political viability is completely tied to that on the ground in Iraq. And the only reason why he is the Republican nominee, he admits, is because things had gotten better over the last several months in Iraq.

But what the McCain campaign and McCain himself is guaranteed to stick with, they say, is his support for staying in Iraq. So what they need to do is to explain to the voters, try to convince the voters why they should listen to him, given the fact that the war is so unpopular.

So what you're going to see, starting here in Meridian, Mississippi tomorrow, is McCain trying to fill out his character, trying to fill out his experience, particularly when it comes to national security.

Meridian, Mississippi has a naval air station. This is one of the places where McCain served. In fact, he was a flight instructor here before he went to Vietnam. He's going to be talking about that, talking about the fact that he comes from a storied military family. In fact, there's a McCain airfield here at the Meridian Airbase.

And then he's going to go on and have several other stops along the way, during the week, again, trying to fill out his character, fill out his experience, in terms of national security and also try, Wolf, to have a connection, really, with the American voter, in a way that perhaps he hasn't been able to do yet.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, stand by, because you're going to be coming back shortly, in part of our best political team on television panel.

The countdown is on to the April 22nd Pennsylvania primary, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling for that very important state.

Jim Acosta is following all the action from Philadelphia, right now. He's with the CNN Election Express. What are these two Democrats doing today, Jim?

ACOSTA: Well, Wolf, Hillary Clinton has a down day. She was campaigning in Indiana and Kentucky, a sign that she is looking past the Pennsylvania primary, despite what some of the surrogates for Barack Obama have been saying over the last couple of days.

Obama -- he spent most of the day yesterday in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He was reaching out to voters there, but he was also asked some questions during a media availability about what some of his surrogates have been saying over the last couple of days.

As we know, late Friday, Patrick Leahy, the senator from Vermont and Obama supporter, and Chris Dodd, the senator from Connecticut, also an Obama supporter, both suggested that Hillary Clinton look at the mathematical difficulties that are presenting themselves to her campaign as she tries to secure this nomination, suggesting that she drop out.

And Barack Obama, yesterday, said that Hillary Clinton can stay in this race as long as she likes.

Now, as for Hillary Clinton, when she was up in Indiana yesterday, she was also asked about this, and she actually sat down in an interview with The Washington Post. She told The Washington Post that she is prepared to take this nomination fight all the way to the convention in late August, so long as the Democratic Party does not work out this situation with the delegations up in Michigan and Florida.

BLITZER: And her exact quote was, "If we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention. That's what the credential committees are for." Strong words from Hillary Clinton. We're going to be discussing that in our roundtable.

Jim Acosta, on the scene for us in Philadelphia, thank you. Up next here on "Late Edition," the candidates, as you've just seen, they're stumping today. Their surrogates are out speaking on television. We're going to bring you their often contentious comments in our very popular "In Case You Missed It" segment.

But first, three of the best political team on television -- they're getting ready to dig into what's really going on. It's the best analysis you'll find anywhere, and you'll see it right here on "Late Edition".

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are getting tougher on each other. Some Democratic politicians are actually saying it's time to wrap up their battle and concentrate on Republican John McCain. But will either candidate back down? I don't think so.

Our congressional correspondent Dana Bash is out on the campaign trail in Mississippi. You just saw her. You're going to see more of her right now.

Also joining us, our senior analyst Jeff Toobin. He's joining us from New York. And with me, here in Washington, our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. They are all part of the best political team on television.

Let me play a couple of clips. Jeff, I'm going to start with you. First Hillary Clinton on her intentions and then Barack Obama on what she should perhaps do. Listen to these two sound bites.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I know there are some in Washington, and there are some in the media, who want this race to be over. Well, I disagree. I think everyone deserves to be heard. I think everyone's voices and votes should count.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants. Her name's on the ballot, and she is a fierce and formidable competitor. And she obviously believes that she, you know, would make the best nominee and the best president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Jeff. So what's the problem? They both seem to agree; they're both running.

(LAUGHTER)

TOOBIN: Well, and I think they will continue to run. You know, I think, at this point, it's all just conversation. We have to see what the results are in Pennsylvania, in Indiana, in North Carolina. I think those are the states that are coming up relatively soon, and neither candidate is going to do anything until those votes are counted.

So, yes, there is this beginning of a drum beat to have Hillary Clinton drop out of the race. Pat Leahy is the most important voice, I think, that has, so far, made that explicit. But until the votes are counted, she's not going anywhere.

BLITZER: But he is a major supporter of Barack Obama. And that drum beat is coming from Obama's supporters. I haven't heard any Hillary Clinton supporters say she should drop out, right?

TOOBIN: And that's the only time there will be even the possibility of her dropping out, when the hardcore Hillary Clinton supporters say to her, look, you have run as good a race as you can, but, at this point, you're only dividing the party -- you know, when the Terry McAuliffes of the world, you know, the people who are closest to her.

You're right. The people who matter are her supporters, not Obama's supporters. And there has not been a chink in the armor, that I've seen, suggesting that any of her supporters want her out of the race, at this point.

BLITZER: You're right. Ed, here's what she told The Washington Post. I'll read the clip.

"I know there are some people who want to shut this down and I think they are wrong. I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve at the convention" -- in Denver -- "that's what the credential committees are for."

That's a pretty serious threat that she's making, right there, that if neither of these candidates has the 2,024 they need to formally get the nomination, she's taking it to Michigan and Florida, the seating of those delegations, to the credentials committee.

HENRY: Absolutely. And there is no real reason for her to get out, at this point. I mean, she has invested so much. She's got so much on the line. She's going to stick it out, as Jeff was saying.

And I think another thing she said, in that Washington Post interview, that's interesting, was that she thinks the Democratic party will regret the fact that Michigan and Florida were not seated in the general election, if they don't take care of this before the convention.

And putting aside the politics of Clinton versus Obama, that's one point that may be accurate that, come the general election, Florida and Michigan are two pivotal states.

HENRY: If the Democrats can't get their act together on that, you can bet John McCain is going to make that a major issue. BLITZER: Yeah, and Dana, the Howard Dean comment that I'm going to play for you underscores that nervousness among the Democratic leadership right now as these two candidates fight it out. Listen to this, and then we'll discuss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, CHAIR, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, I think the superdelegates have already been weighing in. I think there's 800 of them, and 450 have already said who they are for. I'd like the other 350 to say who they're for at some point between now and the first of July so we don't have to take this into the convention.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. What do you think, Dana? How worried are they about John McCain relishing these moments and sort of gaining ground as the Democrats fight?

BASH: Very worried. I mean, increasingly worried. There's no question about it. And you hear it now publicly with these comments from people like Patrick Leahy.

But what's interesting about what Howard Dean said publicly is that that has sort of been part of the discussion, I'm told, privately among many senior Democrats is that, you know, the reality is, despite what people are saying publicly, they don't expect Hillary Clinton to get out of the race. And Hillary Clinton and her husband have made that abundantly clear over the past couple of days.

But what they are hoping against hope is that after all of the contests on the calendar, taking Florida and Michigan aside, after all of those are completed the beginning of June, at that point that the party elders, if you will, see no reason why the superdelegates can't then make their decision. And at some point after the beginning of June, then this race will be decided, not at the convention, not at the beginning of the fall or the end of the summer because that Democrats think will be a complete and total disaster for the party.

BLITZER: All right, guys. I want everybody to stand by because we have a lot more to discuss. We're also going to be talking about John McCain, what's happening on the GOP side. Also this programming note. Please join me for a special primetime edition of "The Situation Room." covering all of the angles of the presidential race. What a week it's been. Tonight, 8 p.m. eastern, right here on CNN. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get back to our political panel in just a moment. But first, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. On CBS, New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson rejected the idea he was disloyal to the Clintons by endorsing Barack Obama while the Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, a Clinton supporter, weighed in on the role of superdelegates in the race for the Democratic nomination. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL RICHARDSON, GOVERNOR OF NEW MEXICO: I owe the Clintons a lot. I served in the president's cabinet. That loyalty is to President Clinton. That doesn't mean that I'm going to, for the rest of my life, be in lockstep with whatever they do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL NUTTER, MAYOR OF PHILADELPHIA: Their main responsibility, as I best understand it, is to exercise discretion and judgment for who is the best nominee for the party and then who can best be president of the United States. And that is their role, and they should exercise that kind of judgment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On ABC, Senator and former Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman explained why he's backing Republican nominee John McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH I. LIEBERMAN, I-CONN.: It pains me. I'm a Democrat who came to the party in the era of President John F. Kennedy. It's a strange turn of the road when I find among the candidates running this year that the one in my opinion closest to the Kennedy legacy, the John F. Kennedy legacy is John S. McCain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On NBC, the CIA director, Michael Hayden, assessed the current Iraqi government's offensive against Shiite militia in southern Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL HAYDEN, DIRECTOR OF THE CIA: What we have is a very decisive act on the part of Prime Minister Maliki to get personally involved and commit his forces and his government to extending Iraqi government control over parts of Iraq that, frankly, have not been under much central government control now for several years. But I talk to my analyst on Friday afternoon, they said that based on this effort, they expect the situation in Iraq to be better at the end of what's going on now than it was at the beginning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk. Coming up, much more of our panel discussion, the best political team on television is standing by to give you insight you'll find nowhere else. "Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Remember, at 8 p.m. Eastern tonight, a special "Situation Room." I'll be back with the best political team on television, 8 p.m. Eastern, special edition of "The Situation Room" later tonight.

Let's get back to the best political team on television right now on "Late Edition." Joining us once again, our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, our senior analyst, Jeff Toobin, and our White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

Dana, I'm going to play a little excerpt of a new ad that John McCain has been running. And then we'll discuss. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: What must we believe about that president? What does he think? Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?

UNKNOWN: What is your rank?

MCCAIN: Lieutenant commander in the Navy.

UNKNOWN: And your official number.

MCCAIN: 624787.

ANNOUNCER: John McCain, the American president Americans have been waiting for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Dana, explain the strategy behind this sort of reintroduction of John McCain to the American public.

BASH: Well, it's severalfold, Wolf. But I think most importantly, and as you just heard in that ad, the first ad buy for the general election campaign, is what the campaign understands is that people kind of think that they know who John McCain is.

They definitely know that the Democrats are trying to make him equivalent to George Bush, and that is something that they are trying to avoid. But they really feel that they need to and want to fill in the blanks of his biography because he does have a remarkable story, and you just saw it in the fact that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And he also has roots going back in the military.

But in terms of something else with regard to what voters are really thinking about now, which obviously is the war in Iraq, he obviously has a very unpopular position. He is saying, I want to stay in Iraq, I think it's important to keep the troops there.

So what they are trying to do in explaining his history and his experience is trying to show voters why they should trust him even though on the surface they don't agree with him. At least most voters don't agree with what he believes when it comes to the war. But there is something else, Wolf, that's really interesting that they're learning from the connection that Barack Obama has made with voters, that even though there are going to be very, very different issues and very clear lines between the Democrats, whichever Democrat there is, and John McCain on everything from the economy to the war, they also understand that any kind of candidate -- it's Politics 101 -- needs to be able to connect with the voters. And that's a big part of what if this bio tour is that he's taking all next week.

BLITZER: He's got a strong image out there, Jeff, as someone who's a maverick on a lot of issues, has disagreed with the president on several issues, voted against his own tax cuts back in 2003. Those are things that will be attractive to some Democrats out there.

TOOBIN: Well, that's certainly what the McCain campaign is hoping. I'd like to talk about another aspect of that ad, which I think is really interesting. The American candidate that Americans have been waiting for, using the word American twice in one sentence with his slogan, it seems to me that was this is the candidate whose middle name is not Hussein.

You know, I thought this emphasis on Americanism was hardly a coincidence, and I think very pointedly aimed at what some voters may have as Obama's unusual ethnic background.

BLITZER: And we did hear earlier from James Carville, Ed, the exact line, the American president Americans have been waiting for -- that's a tag line from John McCain, from his ad -- that as bitter as this rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is right now, it is child's play compared to what either of these candidates can expect from the Republicans if -- once the nomination on the Democratic side is locked up.

HENRY: Absolutely. Because, I mean, look what happened with John Kerry in 2004. He ran sort of similar ads about his Vietnam war record. That got knocked down.

It's harder to knock down John McCain's service, obviously, because he was a prisoner of war. But certainly, I think you're going to see the McCain camp be very, very tough with whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be. But I think McCain's -- one of his many worries is the fact that in regards to what he puts in his ad, what's happening on TV screens right now in Basra and Baghdad, two people killed in the Green Zone this week, which is supposed to be the fortified safe area, American State Department employees told to wear helmets, stay in fortified buildings.

The fact of the matter is that what's playing out in Iraq right now, if that violence continues, is going to erase whatever John McCain is trying to say in his ads, and is going to give the Democrats ammunition on this notion that a McCain presidency would be a Bush third term.

BLITZER: I want to just let Dana weigh in. Dana, on the comments that Jeff just made, this implication that John McCain is questioning the Americanism, the patriotism if you will, of Barack Obama. I wonder if you've heard anything to corroborate that? Because you speak to these people on a daily basis.

BASH: Well, I was just thinking that I'm waiting for my cell phone to start ringing to weigh in from the McCain campaign about Jeff's comments. Because as you know, they are -- they bend over backwards, sometimes really they have some problems within their own party, Senator McCain himself, to try to say that he intends to run a campaign that is not like that.

You remember what happened when he had that talk show host at his event in Ohio, and he said "Barack Hussein Obama," and John McCain came right out and said that he denounced those comments. So, you know, look. The reality is that there is going to be a big difference between John McCain and whichever Democrat is running, whether it's Barack Obama or whether it's Hillary Clinton.

And whatever the subliminal message there is or isn't in that particular ad, they are trying very much to tap into patriotism and to tap into this sense that Americans, first of all, like the idea of a good American story. I mean, Americans have liked that since the days of George Washington.

So, you know, we'll see what they have to say about that. I'll get back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. I'm sure they'll be getting back to you very soon.

TOOBIN: And to me. They can always call me. They sometimes call me as well. So I'm always happy to take their calls.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much. We'll see you later tonight on our special edition of "The Situation Room," the best political team on television standing by. And remember, if you'd like a recap of today's program, you can get highlights on our "Late Edition" podcast. Simply go to cnn.com/podcast.

Coming up at the top of the hour, "This Week in Politics" with host Tom Foreman.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: That's it for today's "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. For our international viewers, stand by for World News. For those of you in North America, "This Week in Politics" starts right now.

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