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Interview With Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius; Iowa Tornado Kills Four Boy Scouts; Obama's Wife Takes Heat; Ten Tornadoes Touch Down Across the Midwest

Aired June 12, 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.
Right now, we are monitoring some breaking news. Dangerous storms and tornadoes are once again swirling through the Midwest. Floodwaters are still rising.

In the presidential campaign, also, Barack Obama is fighting back against what he calls dirt lies and nonsense about him and his wife. We're going to show you how in just a moment.

But we have to begin tonight with the extreme weather. To update you exactly on where things stand right now, tornado and flash flood warnings are up across Wisconsin. Thousands of Iowans have fled as floodwaters move in on their homes. In Kansas and Nebraska, officials are sifting through damage from last night's deadly tornadoes.

Right now, we have got correspondents spread across the extreme weather area.

Dan Simon is at the Boy Scout ranch in Little Sioux, Iowa, where tornadoes killed four scouts. There are young survivors there that tonight are being called heroes.

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff was there today to see the damage for himself. And, in a moment, we're going to talk with someone who is right in the thick of it as the storms pound Wisconsin.

Here, I think we can show you Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. She's suspecting -- inspecting, rather, the heavy damage in her state. We are going to be talking with her coming up in just a minute.

At this moment, the weather is still changing rapidly.

Our meteorologist Chad Myers is following for us in the Severe Weather Center.

But let's start first with Gary Tuchman, who is now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city that is virtually submerged by the floodwaters tonight.

What can you tell us, Gary?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Campbell. The Cedar River is now on the streets of Cedar Rapids. This is J Street. J Street has the water. And so does K Street and L Street, M Street, and 14th Avenue and 15th Avenue and 16th Avenue. The town is inundated. And people are very depressed and traumatized, because, when this day started -- as a matter of fact, just a few hours ago, when we got here, this street, this area was completely dry.

And within a couple of hours, it became flooded. And these are the lucky people, because this water hasn't gotten into these houses yet. Just one block away, though, the water has gone into the houses and destroyed the homes. People are walking around here dazed and confused. They don't know quite what to do, because when you protect your house, if you would have an intruder, you stand outside your house to make sure no one comes in.

When you have heavy winds, you put up boards. But when water is advancing, there's not much you can do at all. And people are just walking around wondering what they can do.

We spent the time today with a 23-year-old woman named Rachelle (ph). Rachelle just bought her first house a couple of years ago. She was going inside her house and the water was lapping up at her doorstep. We were with her. She knew it would come in -- 30 minutes after we left, she said, there was more than a foot of water.

It continued to rise. She made the decision that she had to leave. But there are logs floating in the water. There are telephone poles floating. We see garbage cans floating, all kinds of items. We see animals just walking around. At one point, we saw a rabbit that disappeared under the water. It's very sad and depressing.

And this is not the worst part. The highest flood stage in this area is supposed to come late tonight, early tomorrow morning -- Campbell, back to you.

BROWN: Wow. Gary Tuchman, who is reporting for us from Cedar Rapids tonight -- Gary, thanks.

And we want to turn now to this remarkable I-Report photo one more time. It is just unbelievable. This tragedy as it was happening in Little Sioux, Iowa, where four Boy Scouts died when the building where they had taken shelter was splintered in a direct hit by a tornado.

As you heard earlier, some of the young survivors are being hailed as heroes.

And Dan Simon is on the scene for us right now.

And, Dan, these scouts, I know, had just taken a disaster preparedness course. But looking at the video that's come out from there, I can't even imagine what these teenagers were going through.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's really incredible, Campbell.

We are in Blencoe, Iowa. This is about 15 miles away from that site. I should tell you that people in this community tonight are really mourning the dead and just trying to make sense of what happened.

This storm came in so fast, 6:30 p.m. yesterday. It was still daylight yesterday, but the people I talked to described it as basic whiteout conditions.

I spoke to three scouts this afternoon. They described in very vivid detail exactly what happened. These are people who were in a shelter, one teenager telling me that when the winds came through, he was literally picked up several feet, came down very hard, but somehow he wasn't hurt.

Take a look at some of what else he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was just chaos. There was rubble. There was guys laying around, a lot of guys -- a lot of blood loss. You could tell. And the whole pavement, the whole foundation was covered in like a light red, because blood was mixing with rainwater. It was just chaos. It was gruesome. We tried to find who was hurt the worst and help him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just kept waiting for myself to wake up from a dream. I still couldn't believe that I was that I was -- that I had actually been there and gone through that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: Four people dead, more than 40 people injured.

This is a Boy Scout camp that they preach leadership training. But I should tell you that these Boy Scouts were probably better equipped to deal with a crisis of this magnitude better than most people. They had CPR training. They had first-aid training. And no doubt officials here are saying that several lives were saved -- Campbell.

BROWN: Dan Simon, who is in Little Sioux, Iowa, with us tonight -- thanks, Dan. Appreciate that.

We want to go to Wisconsin now, because at this moment, flash floods and tornado warnings, the heavy storms making a bad situation even worse.

Brendan Conway of affiliate WISN is about 35 miles west of Milwaukee in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, which is getting pounded right now.

BROWN: And, Brendan, I'm hearing a tornado warning has just been issued for the area near you. Is that right?

BRENDAN CONWAY, WISN REPORTER: Yes.

And, Campbell, we actually just had the tornado sirens going off here in the city of Jefferson, where we are. We can show you. The flooding has continued here since about Monday.

And, as we can see, there's homes that are just getting very, very wet, sandbags. Businesses, there's one behind me that they have been fighting what the owners says has been the good fight. They have put up about 18 inches of sandbags. They have been able to keep most of the water out, but they worry it could be just a matter of time before the water starts to flow in.

And then here's what we have, lots of homes here along the Rock River. They have been putting up these sandbags trying to keep the water back. We're told by the sheriff here in this county they have already given away about 100,000 sandbags. They're expected to give away another 70,000. Ten homes here in the city of Jefferson, where we are, have had voluntarily evacuations. And more are expected downriver as the rain continues.

And, again, we have just been hammered all day long with one round of storm after another. And you may be able to hear more thunder in the background. We have seen lots of lightning. More heavy storms are expected -- Campbell.

BROWN: All right, that's WISN's Brendan Conway reporting for us.

Brendan, thanks.

And we have got Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius on the phone with us right now. Her state suffered some of the worst tornado damage last night.

And, Governor, I know that you have had a chance to fly over today, that you have gone to inspect a lot of these areas. Describe for us what you have seen.

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (D), KANSAS: Well, Campbell, you know Kansas,. And we have had some damage in three different communities.

Unfortunately, we lost two citizens last night, and three more were very seriously injured, and were life-flighted to hospitals. We're hoping and praying that they survive. We had damage in a little community of Soldier, where one of the deaths occurred. And various outbuildings and farms and houses were exploded.

Chapman, a small community outside of Abilene, the home of Dwight Eisenhower, took a direct hit, and looks eerily like what we saw a year ago with Greensburg. The entire town is not wiped out, but lost both schools, lost a lot of homes. Fortunately, most of the people got good warning and took cover. One young woman was killed. And we're hopeful that the other three can survive.

And then the city of Manhattan, which is the biggest community that got damaged last night, there was a residential area kind of obliterated and damage to the Kansas State University campus. But, basically, there, it was rooftops and electrical structures, expensive things to fix, but, luckily, no lives lost, with thousands of people on campus.

BROWN: Right.

Governor, I should mention to our viewers also the pictures they are seeing right now are of Chapman, which...

(CROSSTALK)

SEBELIUS: Chapman is...

(CROSSTALK)

SEBELIUS: Right.

BROWN: ... just unbelievable if you look at this, the damage.

Tell us, how has it been in terms of getting relief to people. And, presumably, search-and-rescue operations are still under way today, right?

SEBELIUS: Well, they are, Campbell. The amazing thing in a state like Kansas, we have a lot of practice with disasters, unfortunately. And people work very well together.

So, within an hour of the time that the storm hit last night, there were about 350 people, first-responders, firefighters, and rescue folks on the ground in Chapman, going door to door in the dark, with flashlights and other equipment. That's how -- where they found the three very seriously injured folks.

They went on another sweep today. They're fairly confident they have found everybody. And they're letting residents back to reclaim property. The problem is we have got another round of storms. I almost made this call from the storm shelter in the basement of the capitol. I just got outside minutes ago, because the tornado sirens went off, but we have flash flooding and storms all night.

BROWN: Wow.

Well, Governor, we're thinking about you all. Best of luck.

SEBELIUS: Keep us in your prayers.

BROWN: I know -- yes, absolutely -- that you have got a lot to deal with right now.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius for us tonight.

We're going to have a lot more on this breaking news. Next, meteorologist Chad Myers is going to be with us to talk about where those storms are headed now, what places are being threatened.

And, also, a Chertoff may have to answer to a shocking tale of FEMA waste, the giveaway of millions in relief supplies that was intended for Hurricane Katrina victims, who never saw any of it. We are going to have the full story also when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BROWN: We are back with the very latest on those deadly storms that are ravaging the Midwest. You are looking at pictures now from our affiliate KSHB.

For the latest on what's coming next, we want to turn now to meteorologist Chad Myers, who's in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

And, Chad, what's happening now?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Campbell, to tell you everything, it would take me an hour. I would need your entire show. But I'm going to do what I can here for tornadoes that are actually on the ground, on the ground in Kansas, right near the turnpike at mile marker 140.

And that is really moving toward Osage City, Kansas, on the ground, confirmed tornado, another one up in Wisconsin on the ground confirmed near Cambridge in Wisconsin coming out of that Sullivan County, Wisconsin.

Also now, I want to talk to you about the flooding that's going on. We will zoom a little bit around here. The flooding that's going on, the numbers are actually -- are unbelievable. Cedar Rapids, record flood, set back in 1851, was 20 feet. That's how high the river was. Right now, it's 29 feet going to 32 feet.

This is 12 feet over a record flood that occurred 150 years ago. What does that make it, a 500-year flood? I'm not sure. But it is unbelievable. Also now, Iowa City in big trouble, and so is the University of Iowa. A lot of friends that went to that university. And we're not talking about just flooding down at Hunter (ph) Hall, the auditorium. We're talking 10 feet of water in that auditorium, and the rest of Iowa City and into that Iowa City campus, the Iowa Hawkeyes' campus under water with three to four feet in all of the buildings. And I guess the good news is the kids aren't there, but some people still are. They have camps and things like that.

Right now, we still have the potential for tornadoes all the way until midnight tonight. We will keep you advised, only a couple tornadoes on the ground right now. And about this time last night, we had nine. So, it's not the same night we had last night, but it only takes one tornado near your town to make a big difference in your life -- Campbell.

BROWN: Without question.

Chad, thanks. And we will, of course, be checking back with you as things develop tonight.

The latest storms only add to the misery from a very rough spring across the Midwest. And as we said a little bit ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose agency oversees FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, toured the disaster area in Iowa today.

It is a lot, he says, but, so far, FEMA can cope. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We're capable of dealing with something on this scale, so I wouldn't say it's overtaxed us, but it has certainly put a lot of pressure on us to respond to a wide variety of different types of events.

I don't need to remind you it's also hurricane season. I don't know if this is wood, but, if it is, I'm touching wood, because I hope we don't have obviously another kind of disaster.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Now, FEMA, of course, has had a tarnished reputation since its response to Hurricane Katrina. And in fact, all day here at CNN, we have been reporting on a story that is reopening some old wounds. Listen to this.

In the wake of Katrina, the federal government stockpiled tens of millions of dollars worth of essential household supplies to give to the storm victims, but then it never did. It just filled up in a warehouse. Well, tonight, Louisiana officials are furious.

Abbie Boudreau of CNN Special Investigations Unit broke this story. And she has just gotten off the phone with Louisiana U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

And what is she telling you tonight, Abbie?

ABBIE BOUDREAU, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Campbell, she's obviously upset and angry. But she says she's in no way surprised.

She's talking about how FEMA just sat on those millions of dollars worth of brand-new supplies for the last two years. And instead of handing it over to those still in need, FEMA somehow decided the items were surplus and gave them all away. Now Senator Landrieu and others say they want the items back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOUDREAU (voice-over): Warehouses full of plates, cups, and dinnerware, brand-new coffee makers, stoves, cleaning supplies, $85 million worth of household items, $85 million. And your tax dollars paid for most of it.

The federal government stockpiled the warehouses to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

DEBRA REED, KATRINA VICTIM: It's unreal, because we haven't received none of this. I know I haven't.

BOUDREAU: CNN learned that Debra Reed and others who are still struggling never received any of this, and now they never will. Instead, we discovered for the last two years, FEMA did nothing. It just kept these items in storage, and then it gave it all away to other federal and state agencies for free.

REED: I fought. I fought to get my money. But they wouldn't give it to me. So, I end up going under the bridge.

BOUDREAU: With nothing. She moved to a tent city.

REED: That be the tent right there. That's my tent.

BOUDREAU (on camera): This one right there?

REED: Yes, the little-bitty one.

BOUDREAU (voice-over): Like hundreds of others, after the storm, Reed was homeless. She lived here until a rehousing called UNITY of Greater New Orleans helped her find a home.

But it's still nearly empty. She can't afford to buy even modest items.

MARTHA KEGEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, UNITY OF GREATER NEW ORLEANS: FEMA in fact refers homeless clients to us on a regular basis, and asks us to house them. How can we house them if we don't have basic supplies?

BOUDREAU: In fact, Martha Kegel says FEMA never told her that it had tens of millions worth of brand-new supplies meant for Katrina victims. She says FEMA was told in regular meetings the group was desperate for supplies and that now she's forced to beg for donations for those still in need.

KEGEL: It's been hard to find these kinds of donations.

BOUDREAU (on camera): Right. And this warehouse, or if you would call it a warehouse, is nothing like the FEMA warehouse, where everything was completely brand-new.

KEGEL: Right.

BOUDREAU: Items stacked to the ceiling in some cases.

KEGEL: Right. Right.

BOUDREAU: This warehouse is really just full of mostly used items.

KEGEL: Right.

BOUDREAU: And it's in the back of an abandoned church.

(voice-over): So what happened?

FEMA tells CNN it did distribute household starter kids to 140,000 families. As for the rest of the warehouses and the $85 million of relief supplies, it says the need wasn't there anymore. And since it was paying more than $1 million a year to store them, it decided to give them away as government surplus. KEGEL: It seems to me that FEMA is acting like this crisis is over, that it's been over. It's not over.

BOUDREAU: First, FEMA offered the household to federal agencies, prisons, the post office, the Border Patrol, and elsewhere. Next, the items were offered to all states. But, for some reason, Louisiana said, no thanks. It took absolutely nothing.

Hard to believe, but a state official tells us they were unaware that Katrina victims still had a need for the household supplies. In all, the government says it gave away 121 truckloads from the warehouses.

(on camera): FEMA turned down our request for an on-camera interview, saying the surplus property was -- quote -- "not news."

This stuff really is beautiful stuff.

BOUDREAU (voice-over): Yet, those who spend every day still helping victims of Katrina are stunned.

KEGEL: It just makes me sad to look at this. Is there any way we could still get this stuff? Is it all gone now? It's all gone.

BOUDREAU (on camera): It's all gone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOUDREAU: Now, we told you that Louisiana passed on the supplies, but Mississippi was actually one of the states that did receive some of those items. But, once again, the items went to the state prisons and various agencies like the Department of Wildlife, and we were told they did not go to Katrina victims.

BROWN: Wow. Abbie, OK, we do know there have been new developments all day. Tell us more now about what is happening in Louisiana, about your conversation with senator Mary Landrieu.

BOUDREAU: Well, already, there's a demand by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency in charge of the hurricane recovery effort, to get all of the unused items back. And that's exactly what U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu wants.

Just a little while ago, she told me that she wrote a letter today to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, the department that oversees FEMA. In the letter, she says there's a critical need for these household goods and is asking for the items to be handed over to Katrina victims, who were supposed to get them in the first place.

BROWN: All right, Abbie, we appreciate it. Thanks, Abbie.

We're going to keep an eye on this breaking weather news for you throughout the hour and go back as the story warrants.

But there is some politics we want to get to tonight as well -- a lot of people now talking about what the Obama campaign did today to fight back against negative rumors and unsubstantiated stories that keep circulating -- how to fight a whisper campaign, that's when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Now we turn to the very latest campaign news.

Barack Obama on the offensive tonight, fighting back against negative whisper campaigns that gather strength on the Web. Well, you have heard the rumors, Obama is really a Muslim, that his books contain fiery racial language.

Well, today, the Obama camp launched a Web site that aims to debunk all that. It's called -- or it calls Obama -- quote -- "a committed Christian." It says a controversial line allegedly taken from "His Dreams of My Father" actually doesn't appear in the book.

And here is what has Obama really fuming, the rumor that his wife, Michelle, was caught on tape using the word "whitey." The campaign says that is a lie and that no such tape exists.

But these rumors are persistent. So, do anti-Obama forces want to make Obama's wife a campaign issue. And is Michelle Obama fair game? That's what people are talking about tonight.

And here's David Mattingly with just the facts, so you can decide for yourself.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Obama campaign is bracing for a fight, but the candidate isn't the only one on the defensive. Critics look at Michelle Obama and see a real opportunity.

RICK WILSON, REPUBLICAN MEDIA CONSULTANT: I think there's an edge to some of her remarks in the course of this year that speaks to the larger point of the mind-set that she and her husband share.

MICHELLE OBAMA, BARACK OBAMA'S WIFE: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

MATTINGLY: That comment four months ago caught fire, rocketing around the conservative blogosphere. The campaign was quick to say it reflected her excitement about grassroots support, but it still plays every day on the Web stirring the pot over issues of patriotism.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Bob Hope and I'm proud to be an American.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: That video from the Tennessee Republican Party was criticized by the state's Republican senators, but it touched a theme that also popped up at a John McCain campaign event.

CINDY MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S WIFE: I'm proud of my country. I don't know about you, if you heard those words earlier. I'm very proud of my country.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MATTINGLY: Strategists say there's a reason of the wife of the Democrat who would be president is fair game.

WILSON: This is the game where the lowest common denominator unfortunately ends up being that everybody gets thrown into the shark pool.

MATTINGLY: The issue of Michelle Obama as a potential liability hit newsstands simultaneously on both coasts. Newspapers pointed to relentless crone line rumor mills, conservative blogs, and articles like this one from The National Review" critical of Michelle Obama.

Columnist Maureen Dowd called it preview of future attacks that suggests she doesn't share American values, mining a subtext of race. It's something the Obamas seemed to be bracing for back in May with this appearance on "Good Morning America."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, FROM ABC'S GOOD MORNING AMERICA )

M. OBAMA: We're trusting that the American voters are ready to talk about the issues and not talking about the things that have nothing to do with making people's lives better.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But I also think these folks should lay off my wife.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY (on camera): "Lay off my wife," it was a line drawn on so many levels for this campaign and left no doubt how the Obamas were going to react. And if conventional wisdom holds true into November, opponents of the presumptive Democratic nominee will listen, because attacking a candidate's wife rarely pays off.

STEPHEN MARKS, REPUBLICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANT: Mr. Obama is going to come to his wife's defense. It's going to humanize both of them.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Former political hit man Stephen Marks says you only have to look back to 1992, when Bill Clinton stood up to critics of his wife. And we all know how that race turned out.

David Mattingly, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: In a moment, our political panel weighs in on dirty tricks and the whispering campaign against Michelle Obama. Right down the middle, we have got the facts, so you can make up your mind. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We've got more breaking news tonight. Ten tornadoes, 10 on the ground right now in the Midwest.

We want to go back to meteorologist Chad Myers who is in the CNN Severe Weather Center for the very latest -- Chad.

MYERS: Well, we do know that now there's a thunderstorm with a tornado on the ground not that far south of Rock Island. That's the Quad Cities area. It shouldn't hit the Quad Cities proper, but kind of up toward Moline there on the south and southeast side of town.

We also know that there was a tornado on the ground in the southwest of Emporia. That was about eight minutes ago, Emporia, Kansas. That was a large what they call a stove-type tornado. There are a number of different terms we use. We kind of use the term that's a rope, and it looks like a long string.

And then you get to something a little bit bigger than that, then you get this stovepipe, which is straight up and down onto the ground, a very dangerous, probably 130, 140-mile-per-hour tornado. And then you got up into the EF-4s, and they're called wedges, as they actually sit on the ground and has a wide base, sometimes a mile or even more than that wide on the ground.

Here's a live shot though out of Wichita, Kansas. We can take a look at this. This has got them on the back side.

You're seeing some severe weather there, basically north and east of Sedgwick. There's some hail also west of Wichita proper. They don't have a tornado warning on this storm, but certainly if you have a storm coming your way, this is just like last night, Campbell. If you have a storm coming your way, you just need to get in the basement or go to the lowest level of your house and stay there until it goes by. These storms can rotate at any time.

We had a tornado chaser actually get hit yesterday, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and couldn't see the tornado because it's wrapped in rain. When it looks like a rain shaft and the rain comes over you and there's a tornado in the middle, that is very dangerous -- Campbell.

BROWN: All right. Chad Myers again for us tonight. Chad, we will keep checking back with you.

We do want to take another quick break. When we come back, the attacks on Michelle Obama. What's really going on?

We'll talk about that with our political panel.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: The smears against Michelle Obama have a lot of people talking tonight, and some say attacks on a candidate's family are out of bounds. Others say it's all fair. All is fair in love and politics, and after all she is out there campaigning too.

So we want to talk to our political panel about that now. CNN contributor and Republican analyst Leslie Sanchez, Joan Walsh is the editor in chief of Salon.com, and National Public Radio contributor, John Ridley, here with me in New York.

Leslie, I want you tell you, I want you to take a look at this Maureen Dowd op-ed that was in "The New York Times." She writes that, "Now Republicans can turn their full attention to demonizing Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama is the new, unwilling contestant in Round Two of the sulfurous national game of 'kill the witch'."

Is that what the Republicans are doing?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's not at all it. I mean, I think coming from the liberal left, they like to be hairs. I don't think that's what the Republicans are about. We're talking about new, good ideas, direction of this country.

But there is an issue with Michelle Obama and the question is, is she fair game? And I would argue absolutely. She is out there talking about policy implications. She's railing against, you know, hedge fund managers. She's making certain types of position statements.

You know, when she's talking about whether or not she's a patriot in terms of being proud of her country, she deserves the opportunity to clarify that because a lot of people are wondering is this part of the Obama mindset, and that's what people really want to know.

BROWN: Joan, is she? Is she fair game?

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR IN CHIEF, SALON.COM: Yes, Campbell, I think she is fair game.

I am a journalist and we have covered Michelle Obama, and we will continue to do so.

What I think is not fair, however, is a kind of gotcha game that's going on around that remark about being proud of her country, and an attempt to paint her as unpatriotic and somehow, you know, beyond the pale, excuse me, and I think that is unfair.

I was a little bit shocked by Maureen Dowd's column, because she repeated that "whitey" rumor that until that point had never made it into "The New York Times." They hadn't covered the story, why would they? We didn't. It's not -- that tape to my knowledge doesn't exist. There's no evidence of it.

So there's a certain kind of slurring going on. And then, you know, you had FOX News going off the deep end last night depicting her in a headline in a chyron as Obama's "baby mama," which is, you know, urban slang for someone who's definitely not a wife. Let's put it that way.

BROWN: Let me -- let me show both Joan -- just so people know what you're talking about. This was a chyron that ran on FOX New and it says "Outraged Liberals: Stop Picking on Obama's Baby Mama," and the reason, the reason a lot of people are very upset about this is that, you know, according to an article in the "New York Times," "baby mama" is defined, according to the dictionary in chiefly African- American usage, it refers to the mother of a man's child who is not his wife, nor in most cases his current or exclusive partner. So, as you can see, that would be pretty offensive to a lot of people.

Leslie, go ahead.

WALSH: No, they have -- they have said they made a mistake. I want to make that clear.

SANCHEZ: Right, right.

WALSH: But, you know -- but there's definitely a sense of sort of slapping her around that I think could backfire on them quite frankly.

SANCHEZ: Well, I would agree with that. I think Republicans know they can overplay this. That was not a Republican error. That has something to do with FOX News, and they did apologize today for that and a few other things, the gaffes that were made.

The bigger issue is look at the issues. Look at the fact that her husband, for example, is railing against Wal-Mart, attacks Hillary Clinton for being on the board of Wal-Mart when his own wife was on the board of a major vendor as Wal-Mart receiving a lot of money.

BROWN: All right. OK.

All right, Leslie, hold on. I want to bring John into this because I don't want to talk about Wal-Mart right now. I want to ask a question if there's a subtext of race that's part of this.

JOHN RIDLEY, NPR CONTRIBUTOR: "Baby mama," gee, do you think? I mean, this is a Harvard-educated lawyer, a wife and a mother, and they referred to her as a "baby mama."

I'm sorry. FOX News, not Republican, that's worth reporting right there. This is -- I think some of these ads --

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: But again, they did say there was an apology essentially.

RIDLEY: Yes, once we put it out there, now we're going to retract it.

BROWN: Right.

RIDLEY: We branded her as a "baby mama." Oh, I'm sorry, we didn't actually mean to do that. You know, it ain't like words. Once they're broken they can't be repaired.

I don't know that all of this -- I'm not going to couch everything as being about race, but is it fair to pick on her?

Look, if you're talking about hedge fund managers, that's fantastic. I missed that argument in a lot of this conversation. Clearly those things about "baby mama," you've been talking about the two of them gaffing on stage, that's got nothing to do with hedge fund managers.

BROWN: Well, let me talk about what John just referenced because this may be another fair point. This was also -- another FOX News anchor apologized for calling that fist bump between Michelle and Barack Obama a terrorist fist jab. And again, there was an apology but --

RIDLEY: We call it a pound. Most people -- it's just a pound. It's no big deal. It doesn't mean anything. It's not a secret kind of context.

So again, one time maybe it's a mistake. When it becomes again and again and again, this is a pattern of behavior.

BROWN: So Leslie, where is this jab?

SANCHEZ: No, that's just nonsense and I think that's the point. The more that we focus on that takes away from the fact that there's a lot of hypocrisy in this campaign. There's a lot of people trying to figure out who Barack and Michelle Obama really are.

Are they apologists for America? Are they internationalists, have this European world view a lot of people do not care for? There is a reason. He is considered the most liberal senator in Congress.

BROWN: OK, but that's a pretty big leap, Leslie, to go from like a terrorist fist jab to, well, I don't know where they are. Are they internationalists? I mean, come on.

SANCHEZ: No, Campbell. No, I don't think that's a big leap at all. I think the bigger issues you're talking about one anchor who said something and apologized for it. I'm not going to be here as a defender of FOX News. I think they could speak for themselves.

I think the issue is, is she fair game? She's absolutely fair game when she's talking about policy issues, saying she, you know, would not bite her tongue. That's a paraphrase of what she said. But she's going to have an impact on any type of administration he would have, so she's fair in the sense of the context of her words.

BROWN: Can we agree here that Cindy McCain is not facing similar comments?

WALSH: No, she's not.

RIDLEY: Look, if somebody called Cindy McCain a trophy wife, how would that go down? I mean, that would be the end of it. You're not seeing these kinds of things.

And by the way, issues are fine if she's going to talk about issues, the background issues. But everything that you brought up, nobody is really talking about this.

And again, I'm not trying to pick on FOX News solely, but these are the things that you hear out there from the far end of the conservative spectrum, not all Republicans, but listen, it is damning to say this.

BROWN: Joan?

WALSH: Yes, I really think that Leslie is right in the sense that Michelle Obama contributes on policy, if spouses' positions that, you know, are maybe controversial on policy. Even her career, I would argue that looking at her career and what she did and, you know, the various things she's done in her life, those are fair game. But this attempt to, you know, portray her as somehow frankly un-American definitely has a racial subtext and is really quite unfair.

BROWN: All right, guys, an interesting discussion. We do have to end it there, but Leslie, Joan and John, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

RIDLEY: Thank you.

BROWN: Tomorrow in the ELECTION CENTER, a story that a lot of people will be talking about is one woman caught in the middle of it, the money and foreclosure crisis. But it's especially unusual because of who she is. She defaulted on three homes as she walked the corridors of power in Washington.

Here's Kara Finnstrom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARA FINNSTROM CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is a story about the mortgage mess and the power of easy money and seductive terms. Laura Richardson should have known better.

REP. LAURA RICHARSON (D), CALIFORNIA: I worked in corporate America for 14 years. I have a masters in business.

FINNSTROM: In fact, she is also one of the elites. Today her job description actually includes fixing the mortgage meltdown. Laura Richardson is a member of Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Easy mortgages and getting stuck, it is taking on more than you can handle. It can happen to anyone, and we're going to have Kara Finnstrom's full report tomorrow night on the ELECTION CENTER at 8:00 Eastern. Don't miss it.

Tornadoes are hitting the Midwest right now. In a moment, we're going to go back to the CNN Severe Weather Center for the latest breaking news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BROWN: Gas prices broke another record today. The national average for a gallon of unleaded gas is $4.06, a penny more than yesterday. This is the fifth straight record-breaking day, people. By the way, it's been 115 days since gas was a merely $3 a gallon. Remember those good old days?

We are following all the breaking developments in severe weather in the Midwest. Also, we're going to get an update for you in just a few minutes. But first, Erica Hill joins us with "The Briefing" -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Campbell, we begin with the story that's getting a lot of attention here on CNN today.

Suspected terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay can challenge their detention in U.S. courts. That 5-4 ruling did a harsh blow to the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies. The detainees, some of whom have been held for 6 years without charges, claim they are being held illegally. President Bush says he disagrees with the ruling, but will respect it.

The nationwide tomato scare spreads to six more states. The CDC confirming new salmonella infections in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Vermont. Tainted tomatoes have made 228 people sick.

Ron Paul's presidential campaign officially hitting a dead end. The Texas congressman jumped into the Republican race last year criticizing unbalanced budgets and higher taxes. After winning zero primaries and few delegates though, Paul suspended his campaign today. He has no plans to endorse prospective Republican nominee John McCain.

And don't forget your wallet the next time you fly US Airways because starting in August, soft drinks are going to set you back $2 a pop. That's right. Soda, coffee and juice, $2. Cocktails will jump from $5 to $7 apiece. U.S. Airways will also become the third airline to charge passengers to check a single bag.

United announced a similar policy today. Both of them following in the footsteps of American which decided, of course, to start charging a few weeks ago.

BROWN: All right. Erica, thanks.

"LARRY KING LIVE" coming up just in a few minutes with breaking weather news and a lot more. And Larry is with us right now. What do you have tonight, Larry?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": You're right, Campbell. You carry a bag and they charge you for it?

BROWN: That's the new reality. It's the world we live in. Nobody wants to travel anymore.

KING: How much for a pencil? Yes, Campbell, we'll have the latest on that tornado that stormed through a Boy Scout camp in Iowa last night. Four children killed. Those who know them have awfully nice things to say about these young men.

Find out about them and what caused such violent weather. All that on "LARRY KING LIVE" next.

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

And you might think that Barack Obama and George W. Bush don't have anything in common, but when it comes to campaign stagecraft, well, our Tom Foreman just found something you got to see. That's coming up when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: When it comes to campaign stagecraft, what goes around comes around especially if it works. And something Barack Obama is trying right now may give you a serious case of deja vu. Tom Foreman is here to show us -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Campbell, Barack Obama has been criticized after some of his mega events for being too aloof, too distant, too elitist, more interested in making speeches at people than actually talking with them. Well, today, he turned to tried and true stagecraft to fight that accusation.

At his town hall meeting in Wisconsin, he introduced Ryan and Jenny Mickey (ph). They've got two children, make less than $40,000 a year, and he says, I feel your pain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

B. OBAMA: And at kitchen tables like Ryan and Jenny's, it's easy to feel like that dream of opportunity that should be the right of all Americans is slowly slipping away.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Look at his choice of words in just that sentence. He's got kitchen table in there. He's got dream, opportunity, Americans, all loaded words that really connect.

Look at his body language, too. He is shaking hands. He is making a real point to get up close and personal with this people, talking one on one, and note this. He's making direct eye contact, all of which says I am one of you voters, you can trust me. And Campbell, he's making these points with all of these families that he says will benefit from his tax relief plans.

BROWN: But Tom, there is something very familiar about this idea. I have seen this somewhere before.

FOREMAN: Ah, Campbell, you're a veteran of the campaign theater, and you are right.

In 2000 and 2001, guess who trotted out what he called tax families to illustrate how connected he was and how his policies would help normal Americans? That's right, George Bush. In fact he used tax families in Wisconsin, among other places, to build a case for the very tax cuts that Obama now says were such a mistake, Campbell.

BROWN: But Tom, Obama has been facing this accusation of being out of touch with average voters for quite some time now. So why is he responding this way now?

FOREMAN: Because he is being called out. John McCain is really good in these town hall settings, which suit his folksy manner, and he's challenging Obama to meet him on that turf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESUMPTIVE PRES. NOMINEE: I'll fly around this country with him. I'll reserve one day a week and let's have town hall meetings and hear from the American people. Let's hear from the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: That is a stagecraft smackdown in the making. Obama has to respond in some fashion or he could look afraid, or worse, he could look like he really is uncomfortable in close contact with working-class Americans -- Campbell.

BROWN: All right. Tom Foreman for us tonight. Tom, thanks.

FOREMAN: You're welcome.

BROWN: More breaking news, this time -- well, we're going to go back there with our own Gary Tuchman when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: I want to turn again to the extreme weather that is tearing through the Midwest tonight. Gary Tuchman is joining me again from flood-stricken Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with more from there -- Gary.

TUCHMAN: Well, Campbell, it's raining, it's thundering, it's lightning. The floodwaters have spread about 100 yards since we've been standing here in the last hour.

Just a few minutes ago, a boat came down the street with three men. I asked where they were going. They said they were going four blocks in this direction because there was a man on top of his roof who didn't want to leave his house because he didn't want to leave his dogs and cats. He's refusing to leave. They said they were going to talk him down.

With all due respect, that's a good thing they're doing, take the man down, because this area is supposed to be evacuated. Everyone is supposed to be out of here. Curfew in effect from 9:00 p.m. local time to 5:00 a.m., so there's no looting.

Campbell, back to you.

BROWN: All right. Gary, thanks very much.

When we come back, meteorologist Chad Myers looks at what we can expect through the night tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We want to get right back to the CNN Severe Weather Center and meteorologist Chad Myers for what's yet to come as these storms batter the Midwest -- Chad.

MYERS: Campbell, brand-new tornado watch. It's in existence until 2:00 in the morning Central time. Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, parts of Illinois. So if you go to sleep, how do you know that something is happening?

The NOAA weather radio, it's your best friend. Go find a 24-hour Wal-Mart. Buy one tonight. You just might need it.

Wichita, there you go, all the way up toward Emporia, under some lightning and thunder. Fairly big storm hitting into Kansas City.

Western and northern Kansas City, I'd like to have you inside, and maybe just stay inside for a while. Storms not rotating now, but it looks pretty mean on radar.

Back up here to the north, we're looking at Moline, Quad Cities, Davenport. Look at that left side of your screen. Cedar Rapids, a big thunderstorm right over the town of Cedar Rapids.

The water today in Cedar Rapids came up six feet. It's going to be 12 feet over the old record flood, set back in 1851. That's numbers I can't even fathom how high that one is going to go -- Campbell.

BROWN: All right. Chad is going to be keeping us honest throughout the night. Chad, thanks.

That is it for me in the ELECTION CENTER tonight.

"LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.