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CNN ELECTION CENTER

Democratic Energy Bill Fails to Pass; Karl Rove's Legacy; Obama and McCain on Faith: Persuading the Persuaders

Aired June 10, 2008 - 20:00   ET

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


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there, everybody.
Tonight in the election center: Karl Rove, the man President Bush called the architect of his reelection campaign. Well, there are new details about his life and about how he used his power. I'm going to be joined tonight by the author of a new book on Rove.

Plus, a one-time rising star in the Democratic Party who claims that Rove sabotaged his political career by engineering a prosecution that landed him in prison. Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman makes his case against Rove.

But, of course, Karl Rove does have his defenders, and you are going to hear that side as well tonight.

But, first, the insanely high price of gasoline. We hit another all-time record today. The national average is now $4.04 a gallon, two cents higher than yesterday. Almost one in four people in our new CNN/Opinion Research poll call the cost of gasoline a crisis. And nearly everybody calls it -- quote -- "a major problem."

So, we thought we would begin tonight with our own ELECTION CENTER guide to what Congress is doing, or, in this case, isn't doing, about the energy crisis.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): In this case, the failure is titled the Consumer First Energy Act.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: The bill before us is, pure and simple, a pathetic attempt to even call itself an energy plan.

BROWN: The bill would set up punishments for price gouging, allow the government to sue international monopolies like OPEC, and crack down on oil speculators. And with the oil companies making record profits, it would roll back $17 billion in tax breaks.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: This is like the Twilight Zone. This can't be real. We can't honestly be standing here and saying to the American people, it is a great idea for us to keep giving them your money, when they're making $83,000 a minute.

And this was probably the biggest political hurdle. The bill would also impose a tax on the big oil companies' record profits to raise money for research on alternative fuel.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: If the idea had any merit at all, Republicans would consider it. But, of course, it doesn't. We know from experience. Jimmy Carter tried a windfall profits tax in 1980, and it was a miserable failure.

BROWN: In the end, what they needed today was 60 votes to keep the Consumer First Energy Act alive, and they did not get them.

So, for now, after a lot of lofty indignation, nothing, no changes from Washington, and gas prices will keep going up.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: We believe, if we come back to this again and again and again, they will break.

BROWN: Unless, of course, we break first.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: As for our would-be presidents, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama were too busy campaigning to take part in today's vote.

But why can't the guys and gals in Washington get anything done about gas prices?

Well, let's bring in senior business correspondent Ali Velshi right now to help us with that.

Congress is making a lot of noise, Ali, but nothing is happening. What is really going on?

(CROSSTALK)

ALI VELSHI, CNN SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we have had 50 percent, 60 percent increases in oil before this year in the last few years. It is strange that they're all making noise about it now in an election year, because they're reacting to the anger of Americans at $4 gasoline.

But there's no short-term fix for this. Anybody with a short- term fix shouldn't be making laws right now. This is a long-term problem. The Democrats had some of the right ideas. They wanted to fund alternative energies with this bill. They had one of the wrong ideas. And that is this tax on what they call unreasonable profits from the oil companies.

That's a very slippery slope. The oil companies haven't done anything illegal. They're making money off a product that we buy a lot of. The solution here is curtailing our demand and finding alternatives to oil as a fuel that is the lifeblood of America.

BROWN: OK. So, maybe there are no short-term fixes.

VELSHI: Right.

BROWN: But there are some things that Congress can do. VELSHI: Absolutely.

BROWN: Let's assume they were able to put all the partisanship aside and actually focus very intently. Give us a couple of examples. What kind of things should they be thinking about?

VELSHI: And the next president can take a lead in convening the people who think about these things.

But they need to decide, in five years, 10 years, in 15 years, what is the portfolio of energy going to look like in this country? Where are we going to get our electricity? Where are we going to get our fuel for our cars?

And then based on that projection, create incentives for people to drive more fuel-efficient cars, to drive hybrid cars, hybrid electric cars, to drive hydrogen-fueled cars. Why don't we have hydrogen-fueled cars? Because you can't fill up with hydrogen anywhere.

But what if you put a hydrogen pump at every Wal-Mart and McDonald's across the country? All of a sudden, you would have a lot of hydrogen cars. We have to decide, how much wind power will we use? How much nuclear? How much coal? How much solar? And create incentives for sorts of things.

But it has to be done as a 50,000-foot view of what it is going to look like in five, 10, and 15 years and start doing it. None of it will immediately result in lower gas prices. But, in the end, we will depend less on oil as our primary fuel. And we will just -- we will depend on a bunch of other things and won't be at anybody or any one material's mercy.

BROWN: All right, Ali Velshi for us -- Ali, thanks.

And next; Karl Rove. It turns out there is a lot we never knew about one of the most important people in the Bush administration. Next, the author of a new book on the president's political architect.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We turn now to Karl Rove.

And if there is ever a political strategist hall of fame, he would certainly be a shoo-in. As George W. Bush's top political adviser, Rove guided his boss to an undefeated record, consecutive wins as Texas governor, then consecutive wins for the White House.

And if that isn't enough, there is Rove's reputation for doing whatever it takes in politics. But there is a lot you never knew about Karl Rove, which brings to us a brand-new book, "Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove."

And its author, Paul Alexander, is joining me here in the Election Center tonight.

Paul, welcome to you.

PAUL ALEXANDER, AUTHOR, "MACHIAVELLI'S SHADOW: THE RISE AND FALL OF KARL ROVE": Thank you. Thank you, Campbell.

BROWN: Before we talk about the book, let me -- I feel like I should make this very clear from the start, which is that you are a staunch Democrat.

ALEXANDER: Well, I'm a Democrat.

BROWN: You're a Democrat.

ALEXANDER: I'm a Democrat.

BROWN: OK. You are a Democrat.

(CROSSTALK)

ALEXANDER: Wrote very favorably about Senator McCain, for example. But I am a Democrat.

BROWN: OK.

But if Democrats have a greater nemesis than Karl Rove, I don't know who it is. So, why should people view you in this book as being without an agenda?

ALEXANDER: Well, because I interviewed a lot of people across the political spectrum. And what I discovered when I was talking to folks is that the people who seem to be most angry at Rove right now are often the Republican Party insiders, the people like within the Newt Gingrich camp and the Ed Rollins and the Roger Stones, the guys who really run the party from year to year.

And they are truly angry at Karl because, in their opinion, he took the party, seized the party, and then took it in exactly the wrong direction.

BROWN: Before we get into that, I want to go back a little bit, because there are some things that you write about that are certainly not in dispute, like elements of his personal life and his upbringing, especially.

ALEXANDER: Sure. Right.

BROWN: Tell us about that.

ALEXANDER: Well, he was -- he grew up in Utah in sort of a middle-class, lower-middle-class family. His mother had come from a fairly poverty-stricken situation.

The man that he thought was his father, Louis Rove, turned out to be his adoptive father. And when Karl was 19, that man left the family, came out as a gay man, and left the family. The marriage ended in divorce. The mother went sort of into a period of -- you know, there was a difficult period after that. She ultimately committed suicide. And the father went on, moved to Los Angeles, and then retired in Palm Springs, as an openly gay man.

BROWN: How much of his background, of his upbringing, do you think was what made him who he is today, as this very driven, very ambitious, many would say ruthless political operative?

ALEXANDER: What is interesting about Rove when you really look at him, from early on, he was driven by ambition, and not just, you want a TV show. I want to write a book. He wanted to put his name into the history books. He was driven by a level of ambition that we rarely see in American politics.

And, so, he sort of -- the ruthlessness came, I think, because of a level of ambition that he had. And that started when he was very, very young. And it defined his entire political career.

BROWN: Your book is making some news, particularly when it comes to what happened with Hurricane Katrina, this bungling of Katrina.

ALEXANDER: Yes.

BROWN: And you say that that it was Karl Rove who was behind the delay in getting help to the people of New Orleans, because, you write, he was playing politics. What happened?

ALEXANDER: Literally playing politics while people were drowning in New Orleans.

And the response that I have gotten from -- a piece of the book appeared on Salon -- is just overwhelming. People are so angry, because the American public knew that something was wrong. I don't think that we understood the level that politics had entered into the delayed response of the Bush administration.

BROWN: But be specific about what was happening.

ALEXANDER: Well, I interviewed Governor Blanco. I interviewed Senator Landrieu. I interviewed people on the staffs. And it is their opinion...

BROWN: That's Louisiana Governor Blanco and Louisiana Senator...

ALEXANDER: Right. Right.

People who were literally at the center of the proceedings in that week following Katrina when it hit. And it is their opinion that, while there was a slowness of the Bush administration to respond at first -- they didn't really fully understand the level of the disaster until maybe Tuesday afternoon. The president wasn't even focused on it until Tuesday afternoon.

Then, by Wednesday morning, they had a major political problem on their hands, because this is one of the worst disasters ever to hit this country, and they weren't paying attention. So, Rove devised this plan that he would blame Blanco. That was the plan. And he sort of coordinated an effort within the media for all the Bush surrogates, the talking heads, as Governor Blanco calls them, to go out and trash her in the press and defend President Bush.

And, as they were doing that, they were withholding federal response. There was sort of a lack of federal response because of the politics that were being played.

BROWN: All right. Stay with us. I know we are going to talk to you more when we come back.

But Karl Rove does have plenty of defenders out there. We are going to be joined by one of them.

First, though, a powerful Democrat who claims Rove for political reasons orchestrated events that would put him in prison and out of the way. The former Alabama governor tells his story to our own David Mattingly -- coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff and now FOX News analyst Karl Rove has a reputation for playing hardball politics. But now there are allegations that Rove was behind an effort to not only politically destroy, but actually imprison a one-time political opponent.

The man who is making that accusation is one-time Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

Down the middle, here is CNN's David Mattingly with the facts for you to make up your own mind.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Don Siegelman was once headed where few Deep South Democrats dare to go. He was a popular governor of Alabama, seemly poised for a jump into national politics, until his career was crushed, he says, by Karl Rove.

(on camera): We have heard about right-wing conspiracies before. But if you stand back and look at your case and what you're saying, that sounds almost downright paranoid.

DON SIEGELMAN (D), FORMER ALABAMA GOVERNOR: It is not paranoid if you have facts to back them up.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): As governor, Siegelman was among the first to endorse Al Gore for president. He became an outspoken critic of Bush administration policies. But soon, Siegelman says he was targeted for a political hit job.

He was investigated, indicted and convicted on charges of corruption. Two years ago, Siegelman was sent to a federal prison, a seven-year sentence for a crime he says he did not commit.

Now out working on his appeal, Siegelman met with me to describe why he believes Rove was behind a political plot to ruin him.

(on camera): Why would Karl Rove want to send to you prison?

SIEGELMAN: I was winning elections in Alabama. And, by all accounts, I shouldn't be.

MATTINGLY: As a Democrat.

SIEGELMAN: As a Democrat.

MATTINGLY: In a Republican state.

SIEGELMAN: I was beating the toughest Republicans that they could throw at me.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Siegelman says Rove used his political contacts in Alabama and his influence over the Justice Department to prosecute him out of office forever.

SIEGELMAN: We had the testimony of a political insider who says she heard on the phone that Karl Rove had contacted the Department of Justice, and, you guys, meaning the Republicans, don't need to worry about Don Siegelman. The Department of Justice and the U.S. attorneys are going to take care of him.

MATTINGLY: But that testimony was never heard at the trial. And a statement from the U.S. attorney's office says, "Taxpayers should be proud of the way prosecutors did their job."

Siegelman was convicted of appointing a political contributor to a state medical board. The contributor was the head of a huge medical company who had also served on that board under a Republican governor. And Siegelman says neither of them saw any personal gain.

(on camera): But, in the end, a federal judge rejected the defense that Siegelman's prosecution was politically motivated. It was a federal jury of his peers that sent Siegelman to prison, and not one of the jurors was named Karl Rove.

We contacted Rove's spokesperson. He says, "Mr. Rove played no role whatsoever to prosecute you, never communicated with anyone at the Justice Department, the White House, or elsewhere on the subject."

SIEGELMAN: Congress has subpoenaed Mr. Rove testify to these questions. And, when he is under oath, I don't think he will give those answers that you just gave.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Siegelman's allegation are now front and center of a congressional investigation into the Bush Justice Department. His own pending appeal in federal court has the backing of 54 former state attorneys general, who say, if Siegelman is guilty, then many more public officials could be prosecuted as well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And David is with me here in the studio now.

David, tell us what is going to happen with his case. (CROSSTALK)

MATTINGLY: Well, he has a tough job ahead of him.

He has got to go to the federal court of appeals, and he is going to try and argue that the judge in his previous case gave the wrong instructions to the jury. So, that is not going to be an easy thing to do. And if he is not successful there, he may be going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But he is determined not to go back to prison and he is determined to clear his name.

BROWN: You see him taking it as far as he can, I guess.

MATTINGLY: Oh, he says he's going to do exactly that. He firmly believes in his innocence and he is determined to prove it.

BROWN: All right, David Mattingly for us tonight -- David, thanks.

Karl Rove made his share of enemies while he was in the White House, but has he become a convenient fall guy for the president's critics?

We're going to talk about that with a Rove defender when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: So, was Karl Rove the behind-the-scenes mastermind in the prosecution of Democratic Governor Don Siegelman?

Well, back with me to talk about that is Paul Alexander, the author of "Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove."

And joining us now, we have former senior Bush administration official Brad Blakeman, and also CNN chief national correspondent John King, who has covered the Bush White House.

Welcome to everyone.

Paul, I just want to start with you, because we just saw in this piece that Don Siegelman is putting the blame squarely on Rove.

ALEXANDER: Right.

BROWN: But you can't ignore what David Mattingly said, which is that he was prosecuted by the U.S. attorney, tried by a jury, sentenced by a judge. That had nothing to do with Karl Rove.

ALEXANDER: Right.

But when you go back and look at that trial carefully, there was jury irregularity that hasn't been examined yet. There are conflicts of interest with the judge, who is a prominent Republican in the state, whose company -- he owns private companies there or a stock holder in private countries -- companies that got large federal grants, federal commissions while he was getting ready to hear the case.

BROWN: Right.

ALEXANDER: There are a number irregularities in the case that haven't been examined yet.

BROWN: Brad, let me bring you in here.

You have been listening to this whole conversation, and not just about the Siegelman case, but the other things that Paul has said. What do you think about what he has written and what's going on here?

BRAD BLAKEMAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think it is nutty. I think it is in keeping with the type of writing he's done before. He's a conspiratorialist author. He looked at the JFK assassination when he was at WABC Radio. He looked at the downing of the TWA flight, all just wild conspiracy theories.

And, look, Karl Rove has become the boogeyman of the left. It comes out of the fact that Karl has beaten these guys time and time again at the ballot BOXER: , fair and square. But they don't take it that way. And it is unfortunate, but that's the way it is. And it is a free country. The man can write a book.

But having been in the Bush White House, having seen Karl operate, having known that this guy has not spoken to the sources with knowledge, it is fiction.

BROWN: But, Brad, it isn't just -- I think it is fair to say he is very much a boogeyman for the left. But it isn't just the left. Many Republicans have been openly critical of Rove and his role in this administration as well.

BLAKEMAN: There are some Republicans, granted, that are dissatisfied. But that comes with governing. You just can't get elected as president of the United States and cater to your base. You have 300 million Americans who are your constituents, Republicans, Democrats, independents, and everything in between.

So, certainly, when you govern for eight years, you're going to have those who are for and those who are against you. And especially when Karl has been as up front and public as he is, you make enemies.

BROWN: John King, Karl has, at one time, had a lot of fans and supporters in Washington. But as we just talked about, a lot of Republicans have turned against him now.

Was there a particular turning point or is this just the result of, as Brad was sort of saying, the negative feelings that come when an administration makes difficult decisions?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, there are a number of reasons why some Republicans don't like Karl Rove and didn't much like Karl Rove, Campbell.

And part of it is, they didn't feel -- many Republicans in Congress didn't think the Bush White House consulted them enough, was deferential enough. And they blame Karl Rove for that because he was the gatekeeper for the president's politics.

In a more longer-term way, many Republican say, you know what, Karl Rove was pretty brilliant. He ran two successful campaigns that worked for George W. Bush. They were polarizing campaigns. They played to the base. They did not reach out to the middle or independents all that much.

They worked for George W. Bush. Because of his ties with the evangelical base of the party, he won twice in a very tough environment. And, so, people take their hats off and say, that worked great for George W. Bush. Karl Rove should get credit. But what did it leave Republicans in the long term? It left them with a base, base, base strategy.

And now you see John McCain trying to run a very different campaign, reach to the middle, a more traditional get your base, but also reach out to the other guy. So, he ran a very different kind of a campaign, but he did it for his boss. He was an advocate for one man, George W. Bush.

And most people think, in that regard, he served him well. Are there hard feelings when you win? Are there hard feelings when you push some people away? You bet there are.

BROWN: Paul, let me ask you to respond to what Brad said, which is that, sure, maybe he deserved some of the blame for -- or a lot of the blame for what happened with the administration, but he has become kind of a boogeyman, a rallying point for the left. Is that a fair thing to say about him?

(CROSSTALK)

ALEXANDER: Maybe. But I keep going back to the fact that it is the Republicans that I interviewed who seemed to be most angry.

Karl had a stated purpose when he came to Washington. He said he wanted -- in fact, in a 2006 "Vanity Fair" interview he gave, he said he wanted to establish a permanent Republican majority. And in order to do that, he sort of turned the White House into a permanent political machine.

And instead of governing, which is what you need to do in a case like with a Katrina disaster, it was politics all the time. And, ultimately, his tactics left an enormous amount of damage on the Republican Party itself. That's why you're looking at the fall and the House and the Senate looks both vulnerable to large Republican losses.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: Brad, let me let you respond to that. BLAKEMAN: Look, every decision that's made in the White House is made with a political point of view, every decision. That's the way you govern. You govern not just by putting your finger to the wind on the South Lawn and see how the political winds are blowing. But it is a factor.

And you should know that, Mr. Alexander, that every decision that the president makes has a political component to it. But that's not the end-all. And Karl, when he was talking about a Republican majority, that's his job. His job is not only to increase the president's ability to be reelected, but also to take Republicans with him to the House and the Senate.

BROWN: And, John, let me go to you for a little broader perspective here. What is the legacy of Karl Rove? Are we going to see his influence or his tactics used in this campaign?

KING: Well, there are many Democrats who are glad he's not involved in this campaign, Campbell, because of his success winning.

Look, his legacy is, at least for now, that he won two presidential elections. And there aren't too many people who can say that. On the bigger picture, I would say this. Remember, Karl Rove did want to build that Republican majority. Paul is dead right on that point. And he came to office reaching for the middle. Remember No Child Left Behind. He wanted to take away the Democratic advantage on education. Comprehensive immigration reform, he wanted to take away what he believed to be an emerging Democratic advantage among Latinos, the largest growing population in America, Hispanic voters.

But then along came 9/11, along came the war in Iraq, which will of course be everyone in the Bush White House's legacy, at least in the short term. And it changed their politics. It changed their politics of the country. It changed the president's image. And because of it, it changed their political strategy.

As a tactical politician, a political operative, someone who responds to the circumstances in the country and goes on to win elections, you have to say Karl Rove was a success. Well, how will all his moves be graded in 25 years? It's the same conversation we're going to have about President Bush and just about every senior person in this administration, Campbell, as we get closer and closer to the end of this administration.

BROWN: All right. And we have got to end it there tonight.

But to Paul Alexander, to Brad Blakeman, and to our own John King, thanks so much, guys. Appreciate it.

BLAKEMAN: Thank you.

BROWN: Still ahead tonight, we are keeping a very close eye on flood-ravaged Wisconsin. There is concern that dams, like this one you're looking at right now, are just moments away from bursting.

We are going to have the latest on the Midwest wild weather when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Evangelical voters have been the key to the White House for Republicans. But still ahead, I'm going to tell you why John McCain may not be able to count on them come November.

First, Erica Hill is joining me with "The Briefing."

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Campbell, we begin in Wisconsin tonight where residents are really holding their breath at this hour, just hoping a flood-threatened dam holds.

The Phantom Lake Dam, which you're looking at right now, is about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee. So far, it is holding. The good news there, no one has been evacuated but across the state, state officials are watching about a thousand other dams as southern Wisconsin braces for more heavy rain. The governor says he will ask for a federal disaster declaration.

And more wild weather caught on tape this morning. Check this out. It's a water spout. One of several actually seen off the coast of south Florida. It is like a tornado over water. It is weaker though and not as dangerous.

In Sudan, an airbus jet bursting into flames today after landing during a thunderstorm. Officials now say at least 30 people were killed out of the more than 200 on board that Sudan Airlines flight from Jordan to Syria, from Jordan and Syria.

And Cindy McCain today vowing her role as first lady would be limited.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CINDY MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S WIFE: I do not ever envision myself as being, you know, involved in the McCain administration as has been put at all. But my husband and I do talk and I certainly want to be a part, party to listening to what his ideas are, too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Mrs. McCain though did say she would like to be an advocate for education, Campbell.

BROWN: All right. Thanks to Erica.

And does this sound familiar? A married politician, another woman, a messy divorce, and a wife who refuses to move out? Well, it is a real life soap opera that is playing out right now in Nevada, where the scandal-prone governor is in the midst of the messy break up of his marriage.

Jim Gibbons and his estranged wife Dawn made headlines when she briefly refused to move out of the governor's mansion after he had filed for divorce. Well, now, her lawyer is suggesting she might spill secrets from the governor's past. A past that includes corruption allegations, plus allegations he sexually assaulted a cocktail waitress just days before being elected governor, who has got everybody in Nevada talking. Everybody, that is, except the governor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JIM GIBBOBS, NEVADA: I don't think it is appropriate for me to discuss my personal problems in the public. And I'm not going to do so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: And like bad Vegas odds, are the chips down for the governor? And will the break-up turn into a blow-up that hurts the Republican Party come November?

Tomorrow we will be right outside the disputed governor's mansion looking for answers. That is tomorrow night in the CNN ELECTION CENTER.

Well, coming up, evangelicals and the White House. Religious voters have been essential to a Republican presidential hopeful, but will John McCain's weaknesses with them turn out to be a bonanza for Barack Obama?

The Obama campaign seeing an opening and they are trying to move in. We'll tell you about that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: "LARRY KING LIVE" is coming up at the top of the hour. And Larry, we hear you've got a big exclusive tonight. Who's going to be with you?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": We do, Campbell. It's Hulk Hogan. He is talking for the first time publicly since his son Nick went to jail for that car wreck and badly injured a friend.

Some shocking comments were recorded during jailhouse visits between parents and son. We'll talk about that and a lot more. "LARRY KING LIVE" with Hulk Hogan at the top of the hour, Campbell.

BROWN: All right, Larry. We'll be watching.

A surprise meeting today. Barack Obama brings together a group of more than two dozen ministers. He is persuading the persuaders. But in a minute, can he persuade them to have religious voters walk away from Republicans, walk away from John McCain and head his way?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We're learning more tonight about Barack Obama's hush- hush meeting just hours ago with some 30 religious leaders. Catholic, protestant and evangelical. Candidate Obama reaching out to capitalize on yet another history-making aspect of this presidential campaign, a crack in the Republican base. That's because for the first time in decades, the critical faith vote is up for grabs.

Many on the religious right say that John McCain is unacceptably liberal. We'll hear more in a minute about today's meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, a session that McCain chose not to attend.

But first, let's review some of the pastor problems of both of these candidates. You'll remember, the explosively irreverent remarks of televangelist John Hagee, and Preacher Ron Parsley whose endorsements McCain ultimately had to reject.

And then for Obama, the equally problematic rants of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger. Their racially-charged statements forced Obama to quit the church where he had worshipped for 20 years.

Behind today's meeting is this question, can Obama seize a unique opportunity to bring religious conservatives to the Democratic side? Here now is Tom Foreman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hold on to your handles (ph). The Obama campaign is about to launch a fresh offensive to take religious voters from the Republican Party. It's called the Joshua Generation Project and will use parties, concerts, the Internet, flyers. David Brody with the Christian Broadcasting Network says it's just the latest step and McCain better watch out.

DAVID BRODY, CHRISTIAN BROADCASTING NETWORK: The Democratic National Committee has been working on religious outreach for months. And now, the Barack Obama campaign has been doing the same thing but not just for months, close to a year now.

FOREMAN: Obama's support for abortion rights and his pastor problems give him little chance with older conservative Christians. But his easy way of talking about faith is a break with past Democratic candidates. And his camp believes it could give him a shot with the younger crowd, many of whom oppose the war and think the United States should do more about world hunger, poverty.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESUMPTIVE PRES. NOMINEE: America, this is our moment.

FOREMAN: McCain, meanwhile, continues to face questions about his commitment to the religious right in his own party. He's not expected to attend this week's gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical group.

BRODY: The grassroots conservative, the social conservative Christians, want him to be more talkative when it comes to his faith, but John McCain is not willing to do that.

FOREMAN: McCain has tried. He sought endorsements from conservative pastors but in two high profile cases, that blew up in his face. Inflammatory past sermons came to light, and he had to reject their support.

FOREMAN (on camera): All of this matters because the votes of conservative Christians have been critical to every Republican presidential victory for 30 years.

FOREMAN (voice-over): It's GOP gospel since the days of Reagan. Thou shalt not win by moderate votes alone. That is a warning some conservatives are shouting to McCain now, especially with Obama working the pews, looking for converts. Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Thanks, Tom.

And when we come back, our panel of experts on religion and politics weighs in on Obama's bid to land that conservative Christian vote when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: As you heard before the break, Barack Obama is one of those rare Democrats that many thought would be able to connect with people of faith. But given his problems with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Pastor Michael Pfleger, can he really break through?

We want to bring in our panel now, authorities all in matters of faith and politics. Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council and author of "Personal Faith Public Policy." David Brody is senior national correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network who we heard from at Tom Foreman's piece just a moment ago. And CNN political analyst, Roland Martin, the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith."

Welcome to everybody. David, let me start with you. Barack Obama has been remarkably open I think about his own faith. But more recently, when you hear Obama in church in the same sentence, you generally think about Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger? I mean, how much has Obama's very public split even with his own church undercut his efforts to connect with religious voters?

DAVID BRODY, CHRISTIAN BROADCASTING NETWORK: Well, I mean certainly, Campbell, it's an issue and it's undercut to a certain extent but there's a larger picture here. And, you know, he, along with the campaign, the religious outreach team, has done quite a bit of work in the last year to --

You know, the Jeremiah Wright story is a story, was a story, and probably will soon be a story again with the Republican National Committee. But let's remember, the Obama campaign, the religious outreach team, is in homes across this country. They've been doing it for over a year.

Literally, 50 to 100 people in homes in Iowa, New Hampshire, across the country, and they are talking to folks about Barack Obama's values, faith, the spiritual side of things. And so, they have done a lot of leg work on that and that is not to be discounted at all. BROWN: Now, Tony, you may disagree with what David is saying, but do you think that some of this outreach is in part damage control given some of his issues?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I think so. I think for Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright was defining his kind of undefined faith. Now, he has to make up ground and define what that faith is that he has.

And I think he is doing a fairly good job. I mean, he's kind of baptized the Democratic Party into the faith movement, kind of like I got drenched coming in here. But it's all about trying to, I think, neutralize the evangelical vote for John McCain.

And I think it is only the opponent that he has in John McCain would allow him to do that, because John McCain is not connecting with evangelicals. And so, it's an effort, I don't think, where he can really attract a lot of evangelical votes that will actually vote for him, but he neutralizes them and that they don't see him as threatening as John McCain and his campaign would like him to see.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Hey, Campbell.

BROWN: Roland?

MARTIN: Campbell, I got to jump in right there because I think what Tony just said is part of the problem, and that's why I think there is a difference here.

He said Obama cannot attract evangelicals. The problem is historically whenever we think of evangelicals, we always assume religious right, conservative, when, in fact, when you look at people today they're saying wait a minute. I might be an evangelical but I may not be Republican. I might not be conservative.

Well, Obama is going after all those evangelicals who have deemed themselves progressive. The other issue is here. He gave a speech back in 2006 where he dealt with the issue of faith, challenged Democrats. When he went to Rick Warren's church, Saddleback in California, people criticized Warren by saying wait a minute. This guy doesn't support abortion and homosexuality. He said no, we're here to discuss HIV and AIDS.

And so, what he is trying to do is go after those faith voters who do not subscribe to conservative principles. That's what he's doing.

PERKINS: I agree with you that there are a lot more evangelicals in the religious right, and that's the same as those value voters we saw in 2004. Those were not all, you know, Christian right voters. They were evangelicals. They were independent voters who care about traditional morality. And those are the ones that he is going to have a hard time getting to vote for him.

They may be neutralized and not passionate in supporting John McCain but when it comes down to life, marriage and family, when they look at Barack Obama's record, they cannot vote for him.

BROWN: Well, let me -- David --

MARTIN: Tony --

BROWN: Hold on, hold on, Roland. I want to get David to give us a bit of a reality check here, because evangelical voters are among the most reliable Republicans out there. Young evangelicals may lean Democratic on issues like poverty, but when it comes to core social issues, abortion, gay marriage, these are pretty conservative voters. Does Obama really stand a chance here or is Tony right?

BRODY: Well, Obama doesn't stand much of a chance when it comes to the ardent pro-life and pro-traditional marriage crowd. The social conservative evangelicals. He's not going to win many of those voters.

But let's remember, Campbell, he's not after those voters. As Roland said, this is a two-track process here. We're looking at social conservative evangelicals that the Obama camp understands there are significant differences on abortion and marriage, and they're not going after those.

But they're going after the moderate evangelicals, the younger crowd, the ones that are open to poverty, Darfur, climate change and others. But also an important point to mention here, Campbell, when it comes to young evangelicals, they are tired of the partisanship in politics.

Really the younger generation as a whole and Obama plays to that. And that's another reason why the Obama campaign believes they can attract younger evangelicals.

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: Well --

MARTIN: Campbell -- Campbell, you even --

BROWN: OK. Quick, Roland.

MARTIN: Campbell, you made the point about social issues. Again, you have to broaden the debate now when you think of social issues. It goes beyond abortion and homosexuality.

And that's -- the trouble now is because evangelicals on the right are saying, wait a minute. This is the only thin areas we've been able to define.

PERKINS: No, that's not right.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: All right.

MARTIN: No, no, no. Come on, Tony. Now, poverty comes in. Health care, education comes in, Tony.

BROWN: All right, Roland, let him respond.

MARTIN: It goes beyond those two.

BROWN: Let him respond. Go ahead, Tony.

PERKINS: When you look -- Pew Research recently had a poll that showed that younger evangelicals, as David pointed out, are drifting away from the Republican Party but they're more pro-life than their parents' generation. Do they care about the other issues? The poverty and social justice?

Yes, they do but they still put a priority on life. That is where Barack Obama is going to have a problem because of his radical pro-abortion views.

BROWN: Let me ask David one quick question before we get to take a quick break, which is, could Obama make some grand gesture that, you know, whether he gave some sort of speech about faith or have someone prominent speak at the Democratic convention or something that would really connect or reach out to these people in a way that, you know, generally campaigning isn't going to?

BRODY: Oh, there's no doubt about it. I mean, in essence let's go back to Bob Casey and the convention in the '90s when a pro lifer wasn't allowed to speak. Will a pro-lifer be allowed to speak at the Democratic convention? It's a good question and it's something he can do.

But really, the proof to many evangelicals and others is in the pudding. For example, if Barack Obama is going to make some head way with evangelicals, those socially conservative evangelicals to a certain extent, will he vote for any sort of parental notification bill? Will he vote for a fetal pain bill?

BROWN: Right.

BRODY: Some of these more moderate bills. That's going to be very important because eventually or ultimately, he's going to have to put a little oomph behind some of what he's saying. That may be more an olive branch than anything else.

BROWN: Right. And we should mention too, he was glued to the hip to the pro-life senator, Bob Casey, in Pennsylvania during the campaign as well.

Guys, hang with me, Tony, David and Roland. When we come back, we're going to focus a little closer on John McCain and why he's not connecting with many religious voters. This is the ELECTION CENTER.

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BROWN: John McCain has always been reluctant to talk publicly about his faith. But he may have to if he wants to make it to the White House. So back with me to talk about that now are Tony Perkins, David Brody and Roland Martin. And I should mention that whenever Tony has been speaking the noise you're hearing in the background is thunder and lightning down in Washington, D.C., or something that Tony is saying that is getting a pretty --

PERKINS: Actually, it is an exclamation. They're saying that he is right.

BROWN: OK.

All right, Tony.

(LAUGHTER)

So I'll start with you to see what kind of reaction we get. Give us your assessment, your pointed assessment, of why McCain is not connecting with religious voters.

PERKINS: It's not just that he does not have the faith talk. That's understandable. That generation, a little harder in expressing their faith. And so, he's not real comfortable talking about that.

And so, that's not the high hurdle for him. The high hurdle is that he is not talking about the policy issues, the social models, the values issues that are important to the social conservative base. Now, the irony here is he has the record that would support such rhetoric where Obama has the rhetoric but no record to support it. He's unwilling to talk about the life issue, the family issues, which he has a pretty good voting record on.

BROWN: Right.

PERKINS: But in order to connect and create the intensity that he must have in the social conservative base, he has to talk about those issues.

BROWN: David, we know he doesn't talk about it but he does mention sort of this one moment where faith really mattered to him. And he has even turned it into a campaign commercial. Let's listen briefly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESUMPTIVE PRES. NOMINEE: One night after being mistreated as a POW, a guard loosened the ropes binding me, easing my pain. On Christmas that same guard approached me. Without saying a word, he drew a cross in the sand.

We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: And this seems to be sort of the one personal story he keeps going back to, the anecdote he repeats over and over. Are religious voters waiting for him to open up more? I mean, does he even need to give some sort of speech in the way that Mitt Romney did, you know, outlining his faith to try to connect?

BRODY: That's a great point, Campbell. He may have to go down the Romney line, so to speak, and eventually deliver some sort of faith speech.

You know, it's interesting you brought up that cross ad, or campaign ad, because that's right. That's what McCain has talked about. That one specific incident with the soldier there.

But you know, grassroots conservatives, as I talk to them throughout the last few months, say enough with the cross and the soldier. Nice story, Hallmark music, beautiful. But we want to hear more from you about your faith experience. You know, is it fair to John McCain?

You know, there's an argument to say no, it really isn't. You know, did Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan, and others have to go through this, jumped through this hoop?

But you know, coming after George Bush, coming after an evangelical president, if you will, the game has changed to a certain degree, and John McCain is on that end of it.

BROWN: Roland?

MARTIN: Campbell, his fundamental problems that he has had a bad history in terms of criticizing conservative evangelical leaders. What John McCain must do is stop running away from him. He's scared of them.

He needs to step up and say, look, I can handle a dialogue with you, a conservation with you. Why does he skip a Southern Baptist? I have no idea. It's a weakness. Shore it up.

Don't be scared to talk about your faith. Come up with a new testimony, John McCain. That's what you need to do.

BROWN: Tony, I got a very quick 20 seconds here. Bottom line this for me. Are you worried conservatives are going to sit out this election?

PERKINS: I'm not worried, Campbell, they're going to sit out. What I'm worried about is what I see when I'm out there across the country. This past weekend I saw it. There's no intensity.

In a so closely divided nation, the Republican Party must have intensity to win. Barack Obama has intensity on his side.

BROWN: Right.

PERKINS: John McCain needs it, too.

BROWN: OK, guys, Tony, David and Roland, a fascinating conversation. Thanks so much, guys. Appreciate it. PERKINS: Thank you.

BRODY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

BROWN: And that is it for me in the ELECTION CENTER tonight. Larry King starts right now.