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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Obama Gets Set to Travel Abroad

Aired July 18, 2008 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Condoleezza Rice delivers a message to anyone thinking the United States is flip- flopping on talking to Iran. And she has a firm message for Tehran. She delivers both right here in an exclusive interview. That's coming up.
The world will be watching Barack Obama's major trip abroad. But John McCain is determined to keep your attention. He's talking about something you can't ignore.

And as we all deal with high gas prices, what are lawmakers doing to help? Our reporter find some of them off guard and asks questions you demand to know.

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

But, first, our CNN exclusive interview with Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state. Within hours, the U.S. government will do something that some Washington hard-liners see as a sign of weakness. But the Bush administration smacks back that notion.

Tomorrow, in Geneva, Switzerland, a senior U.S. envoy, in fact, the number-three diplomat at the State Department, will come eye to eye with a top Iranian nuclear negotiator, this for the first time. Some people suggest that's a major reversal of the Bush administration's tough stance against meeting with Iran on nuclear issues.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered this response in our exclusive interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I acknowledge that what we have done is to make a step that we think demonstrates to everyone our seriousness about this process.

But what has not changed is that the United States is determined to have negotiations only when Iran has suspended its enrichment and reprocessing. That's when the United States can join.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's only just the beginning -- a lot more of this interview coming up here, the full interview airing Sunday on CNN's "LATE EDITION." But let's talk about what the secretary had to say, her stern message that the United States is not flip-flopping when it comes to talking to Iran about nuclear issues.

Let's turn to the former Defense Secretary William Cohen. He is the CEO of The Cohen Group here in Washington.

It looks like a significant difference, although she says this is really a one-shot deal, potentially.

WILLIAM COHEN, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, what's happened, the Baker-Hamilton commission nearly two years ago had recommended that the Bush administration initiate discussions with Iran. So, this has been an ongoing process with the Bush administration.

And I think Secretary Rice has been in the forefront of this, trying to find a way that we could sit down and actually have these kinds of discussions. But there has been a confluence of events, namely, the Israelis conducting that exercise in the Mediterranean, looking very much like a preparation for a strike against Iran, their strike against Syria recently against I suspect at a nuclear site, the fact that they seem to be moving more and more toward a military solution, or action, against Iran.

That, coupled with strong support coming from our European friends, the Brits, British, and the French in particular, that all kind of puts us in a position of saying now is the time to discuss this with them.

BLITZER: So, you think the Iranians are beginning to show some moderation on this issue?

COHEN: I think they're being very calculating on this. They may be looking at our political process saying, far better to reach an agreement or a deal with President Bush, rather than risk any kind of military action, either by the Israelis acting on their own or in conjunction with the United States, then take their chances on a new administration next year, possibly with a Barack Obama, but certainly with Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.

So, they're looking at it, saying, if we get by this period of time, we may be in better shape next year.

BLITZER: As you will see when we continue the interview with the secretary of state, she makes it clear that, if -- if -- the U.S. diplomat, William Burns, meeting with the Iranian nuclear negotiator this weekend in Geneva, if he hears a good response from the Iranians, that could open the door to more of this kind of dialogue.

COHEN: Absolutely.

And I think the Europeans very much want this. The Russians, the Chinese, everyone would want to see this, if the Iranians are serious. And this becomes the big question. Are they serious, or is it a stalling tactic? We should be able to find out relatively soon. But, if they do sit down and seriously discuss this, this could open up a real possibility about having diplomatic relations.

BLITZER: And, as the secretary also said to me, there's serious consideration under way right now, for the first time since 1979, when 444 days developed of American diplomats being held hostage in Iran, of the U.S. now resuming some sort of limited diplomatic interest section in Tehran. That's under consideration, no done deal yet. But that would be a significant development as well.

COHEN: That would indeed.

I think, again, it opens up the potentiality for various types of relations with the Iranians and hopefully bringing peace to the Middle East. We're seeing some movement on the part of the Israelis making an agreement with the Palestinians on a prisoner swap for those two Israeli soldiers who were killed.

We're seeing the Israelis reaching out to the Syrians. And, so, Iran may see that the dynamic is shifting against them, and they want to take advantage of this during President Bush's last few months in office.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff, fascinating stuff in these final six months of the Bush administration.

Secretary, thanks for coming in.

COHEN: Great to be with you.

BLITZER: And we're going to have more of my exclusive interview with the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up later this hour.

Remember, the full interview airs Sunday on "LATE EDITION." We go through the entire world, get into some politics as well. That full interview will air Sunday on "LATE EDITION" 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

Let's turn to the presidential race right now. Senator Barack Obama is set for his first trip abroad as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. While he's away, John McCain will stay, determined to compete with the spotlight by talking about things you worry about.

Dana Bash is covering the McCain campaign for us. She's here with us right now.

All right, what's their strategy, the McCain camp, to do while Senator Obama's going to be getting, as we know, a lot of publicity around the world?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'm told it's actually going to be quite similar to what we saw from Senator McCain today, kind of a message balancing act.

McCain will try to provide a contrast to Obama being abroad by spending a lot of time talking about what voters care most about at home. And that, of course, is the economy. But he is still going to get his digs in on Obama's foreign policy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): A tour of GM's Michigan Design Center to get a firsthand look at the company's efforts to develop its first battery-powered car.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will do everything that I can to support this industry, to help it develop, to help this new technology in the form of tax credits to consumers.

BASH: John McCain angered voters in hard-hit Michigan during the primary by declaring their jobs won't come back. Now he returns to the battleground state carrying a more delicate message.

MCCAIN: The manufacturing loss here in Michigan has been profound. It's been deep. It's been painful.

BASH: McCain's goal was to beef up his economic credentials with skeptical Michigan voters. But one voter was more interested in matters abroad and asked a pointed question about his plans for Iran and Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We lost Vietnam. You said you knew how to win wars. We didn't win there. And I don't know if winning wars is necessarily something that a president wants to do, or should do.

BASH: She got an eight-minute answer. McCain saw a chance to get some licks in, ahead of Barack Obama's trip to Afghanistan.

MCCAIN: I'm glad he's going to Afghanistan, for the first time. He's never been to Afghanistan. And I'm astonished.

BASH: And Iraq.

MCCAIN: Senator Obama apparently is going to sit down for the first time -- for the first time ever -- with General Petraeus, our general over there. We will win this war. We will win this war, if we don't do what Senator Obama wanted to do. And that's set a date for withdrawal and predicated on a date, and not conditions on the ground.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, that's pretty much the kind of thing we heard from McCain all week on the stump. He's trying to prevent Obama from using his trip abroad to burnish his foreign policy credentials.

But now McCain is going to pay to do that. We have a brand-new TV ad the McCain camp says it will run in the battleground states while Obama is abroad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hasn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops, positions that helped him win his nomination. Now Obama is changing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, that's noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, it's the McCain campaign's first so-called contrast ad against Senator Obama.

And the other thing is, that's pretty tough stuff to run against Senator Obama while he's abroad. But McCain aides tell me that this is something that they thought has precedent, because the Obama campaign and the DNC hit McCain pretty hard while he was abroad. So, they say it's fair game.

BLITZER: Some would call a contrast ad an attack ad. But that's for people to interpret, Dana.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I wonder what his answer was to the woman who pointed out we lost in Vietnam. We never heard that part, did we?

BLITZER: Yes, he spent eight minutes answering her.

CAFFERTY: Yes, but we didn't use any of it.

BLITZER: No.

CAFFERTY: Barack Obama's trip to Europe and the Middle East could be a game-changer in the upcoming election. The pollsters at Gallup say his highly publicized international trip could -- quote -- "have the potential to change the structure of the race."

The experts agree the stakes are very high. The trip has been planned to put Barack Obama into settings that are usually reserved for presidents, things like formal meetings with foreign leaders, public speeches, visits to historic sites.

While Obama has been highly critical of the Bush administration here at home, one analyst says he will have to tread lightly overseas. Tradition is that politics ends at the water's edge, although not everybody plays by those rules.

But this analyst points out criticizing foreign policy in Washington' is one thing, criticizing it in Berlin quite another. That's a quote. Obama leads Republican John McCain in the polls at home. But he still has to convince Americans that he has the foreign policy chops to fill the role of commander in chief.

One recent poll shows 48 percent of voters think Obama would make a good commander in chief. But 72 percent feel that way about John McCain. And you can bet the Republicans will be looking to pounce on any errors. Obama will get intensive media coverage, the kind usually reserved for heads of state.

And it's expected that he will get rock star-like receptions from crowds wherever he goes. People overseas have been fascinated with Barack Obama almost from the beginning.

If he makes a good impression over there, it will likely do him a world of good over here. After eight years of cowboy diplomacy of President Bush, 70 percent of Americans think the U.S. is less respected in the world than it used to be. Barack Obama can begin fixing that.

So, here's the question: What would constitute a successful trip overseas for Barack Obama?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, and you can post a comment on my blog. You can actually just go to CNN.com, because there's a link to the blog on the front page of our Web site there as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Where it should be.

By the way, we just checked, Jack, and he didn't really answer the question about Vietnam that you wanted.

CAFFERTY: I'm sure he didn't.

BLITZER: That's why it wasn't in Dana's piece. Maybe he will answer it on another occasion.

CAFFERTY: Or not. Thank you.

BLITZER: Condoleezza Rice is making some very firm statements: The United States is not flip-flopping when it comes to talking to Iran. You're going to hear the other messages she's sending to Iran, messages to Iraq as well. More of my exclusive interview with her, that's coming up.

Also, some people are wondering if John McCain is borrowing political strategies from Bill Clinton's winning playbook.

And as we all cope with the high cost of energy, Americans demand to know what U.S. lawmakers are doing. So, one of our reporters is asking on all of our behalf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's 4:30 in the afternoon, the middle of the week, no votes, nothing happening.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: No, there is something happening. We're bringing a bill to the floor dealing with speculation in the oil markets.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: There's breaking news developing in Houston, Texas.

Let's go right to Carol Costello. She's working this story for us.

A sad story.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a horrible story. And this happens far too often.

Take a look what's happening in Houston right now at a refinery. One of those huge cranes, yes, it collapsed. It completely fell over on its side. Our affiliate KPRC is reporting four people died in this accident. Five are on their way to the hospital or in the hospital in critical condition. And three have suffered traumatic injuries.

Now, company officials there are now trying to account for everybody on that construction site and at this refinery and plant, to make sure everyone else is OK.

As you might imagine, they have a huge mess on their hand now, ferreting out exactly what happened, and finding out if there are other victims involved with this.

But, Wolf, these crane collapses are happening more and more often. You remember there were two recently in New York. There have been crane collapses in Florida. You have to wonder what is going on at these construction sites.

BLITZER: It's a good question. And I see those huge cranes, as millions of other people do, and you wonder how secure are those things, and, if they tilt or collapse, this is what could happen. All right.

COSTELLO: I know. You know, there's two construction sites in Baltimore with those huge cranes. And I walk under them, and I wonder because of what's been happening.

BLITZER: And you should.

All right, we will get more information. Then you will update our viewers. Carol, thank you.

COSTELLO: Sure.

BLITZER: Meanwhile, here in Washington, there's more talk about the toll that high oil prices are taking on Americans. The Senate Homeland Security Committee has just announced it will hold hearings Tuesday on energy security.

The legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens will testify. He says we're in a hole we can't drill ourselves out of.

But CNN's Ed Henry has been asking, why hasn't Congress done something already? -- Ed.

HENRY: Wolf, the president this week lifted the executive ban on offshore drilling, but the Congress still needs to follow suit. And they seem stalled on this and any other energy-related legislation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please rise and raise your...

HENRY (voice-over): Almost 100 congressional hearings on energy so far this year, hours and hours of talk, but little action. So, let's take a walk. There's Dick Durbin, the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate, riding the Senate subway.

(on camera): Do you mind if I sit with you?

It's 4:30 in the afternoon, the middle of the week, no votes, nothing happening.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: No, there is something happening. We're bringing a bill to the floor dealing with speculation in the oil markets.

HENRY: The speculation -- most experts say that going after speculators will only have a marginal impact.

DURBIN: A marginal impact is something.

HENRY (voice-over): Durbin, who is fiercely opposed to offshore drilling, promises Democrats will get an energy bill done.

(on camera): So, you're going to get it done in the next two weeks?

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: Well, that's my goal. And we have been working on it all day.

HENRY: A goal is one thing. You're in charge now.

(CROSSTALK)

HENRY: You're in charge now.

DURBIN: Well, we're in charge with 51 votes out of 100. So, it isn't exactly a hefty majority.

HENRY (voice-over): Then I find retiring Republican Pete Domenici. As former chair of the Energy Committee, he's expressing regret both parties have failed to find consensus on energy over the last quarter-century. He speaks of finding common ground. But he's as fiercely in support of offshore drilling as Durbin is against it.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), NEW MEXICO: The people are going to fix it, because they understand this simple proposition that this huge Outer Continental Shelf is theirs. They're going to come out 75 percent in the next poll, and they're going to -- we will say to the Democrats, just defy them if you would like, at your peril.

HENRY (on camera): Well, not the next poll. A new one just found that more Californians than ever support offshore drilling, but it's still less than half, 43 percent of all Californians. So, what how about a blue-ribbon panel to try and find solutions while Congress is gridlocked?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rallying his friends...

HENRY (voice-over): Here's one, a dream team of talking heads, everyone from Mack McLarty, President Clinton's former chief of staff, to Don Evans, a Texas oilman who was President Bush's commerce secretary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have so many great ideas in this report. Why haven't they been implemented over the last 25, 30 years?

HENRY: The panelists didn't really answer why they didn't do more when they were actually in government. But then Don Evans jumped in.

DON EVANS, FORMER COMMERCE SECRETARY: I think the simple answer to your simple question is, gas is $4.50 a gallon. It's amazing how that will focus the mind.

HENRY: We can all agree on that. We're all focused.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: An interest group called Securing America's Future Energy released a report in 2006, accurately predicting that oil could reach $120 a barrel. Today, they posted a new report predicting oil could reach $200 a barrel, a sign that perhaps things are going to get worse before they get better -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, working the halls of Congress for us, thank you for that.

And with gas prices skyrocketing, and elected officials apparently doing so little about it, we search for answers in a Campbell Brown "ELECTION CENTER" special later tonight, "Running on Empty." That's here on CNN, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Stories we're following for you in THE SITUATION ROOM: One of John McCain's fellow Vietnam POWs speaks out. Hear what he says about the war on terror and how it could be damaging to the McCain campaign.

And Barack Obama overseas -- could his trip abroad change the game right here at home?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: We're starting to hear some echoes of the past campaigns in this, the 2008 race for the White House.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's looking in this story for us.

I take it there could be some old political tactics making a comeback?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, remember triangulation? It may be coming back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Triangulation, that's what President Clinton used to do, split the difference with people on both sides of an issue. Will it work for John McCain?

Here's what McCain's foreign policy adviser said to reporters on Wednesday.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RANDY SCHEUNEMANN, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR OF FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY: I think the American people have had enough of inflexibility and stubbornness in national security policy.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Inflexibility and stubbornness. Could he be talking about President Bush? Apparently, he could, because McCain's adviser also said:

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SCHEUNEMANN: We cannot afford to replace one administration that refused for too long to acknowledge failure in Iraq with a candidate that refuses to acknowledge success in Iraq.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: That's triangulation. We're seeing it on other issues, like offshore oil drilling. President Bush recently lifted the executive order banning offshore drilling. Obama's position?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe that, before we give the oil companies any more land, it's time we tell them to start drilling on the land they already have or turn it over to somebody who will.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SCHNEIDER: Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: I know that Senator Obama is opposed to lifting the ban on offshore drilling. I believe the states should continue to decide.

SCHNEIDER: Leave it to the states, a third way.

On Friday, McCain triangulated himself between President Bush and Al Gore on global warming.

MCCAIN: I place much greater emphasis on nuclear power than Vice President Gore does. But I am with him. I took on this issue early on.

SCHNEIDER: Obama is a skeptic about nuclear power.

OBAMA: I don't think it's -- it's our optimal energy source, because we haven't figured out how to store the waste safely or recycle the waste.

SCHNEIDER: McCann ran an ad about his differences with President Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: John McCain stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: The triangulation message sounds like this: Had enough of Bush? Nervous about Obama? Try the third way. McCain -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting strategy. We will see how he does with it.

Thank you, Bill.

Bill's working that story.

Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, now clarifying America's position on Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICE: I am prepared to go and talk to my counterpart anyplace, anytime, anywhere. But there really must be a suspension, verifiable suspension, of their enrichment and reprocessing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Plus, her response to the big news about troop withdrawals, some sort of time frame in Iraq. More of my exclusive interview with her, that's coming up.

Plus, Barack Obama will be visiting with world leaders overseas, but he may have a difference of opinion.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now: He was a prisoner in war in Vietnam, like John McCain. And he spoke out to defend the war in Iraq. Hear why those words could damage McCain's campaign.

And you won't believe the comforts the U.S. Air Force brass want on their flights and how much of your tax dollars they're willing to spend on it.

And it's a village with a Sunni mosque and soldiers taking mortar fire from insurgents, but it's in California, where not everything is what it seems.

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

Moments ago, you heard Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice respond to critics who say the United States is now showing weakness when it comes to talking directly with Iran. She flat-out rejects that notion, saying the Bush administration is not flip-flopping.

All of this involves tomorrow's talks in Geneva, Switzerland, where a senior U.S. envoy will come eye to eye with a top Iranian nuclear negotiation. All of this for the first time.

The Secretary of State talked more about that in my exclusive interview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The number three diplomat at the State Department, indeed, the man whose office we're sitting in right now, is meeting this weekend with high-ranking Iranian officials. Now, until now, the U.S. position was there would be no such meeting on nuclear issues until the Iranians stopped enriching uranium, which they're still doing.

Why the change?

RICE: Well, let me be very clear that the U.S. demand for a precondition for the suspension of Iranian enrichment and reprocessing prior to negotiations stands. And in fact, what Bill Burns will do is he will go to demonstrate the unity of the P5 plus one, as we call it, Russia, China, and the three European countries. He will go to demonstrate that we are unified. He will go to affirm that the United States fully backs the package.

By the way, I signed the letter transmitting that package. And he will receive the Iranian answer. He will also make very clear that there will be no negotiation in which the United States is involved until there's a suspension of their enrichment and reprocessing.

BLITZER: So is this just a one-shot deal? RICE: This is. This is.

BLITZER: He will just sit in this meeting, listen, deliver his little message, receive a response, and that will be it?

RICE: Well, of course he will be listening intently to see if the Iranians demonstrate that they are ready to accept the condition, the demand -- and by the way, it's not a U.S. demand, it is now a demand that is enshrined in three separate Security Council resolutions.

And he will listen. And if Iran is ready to suspend, then the United States will be there. But it's very important to recognize that this is to reinforce a position that we have held since 2006.

BLITZER: But you acknowledge this is a change?

RICE: I acknowledge that what we've done is to make a step that we think demonstrates to everyone our seriousness about this process. But what has not changed is that the United States is determined to have negotiations only when Iran has suspended its enrichment and reprocessing. That's when the United States can join.

BLITZER: This is what you said back on June 3rd.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICE: If Iran suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, I will join my U.N. Security Council colleagues, I'll meet with my Iranian counterpart. I'll do it anytime, anywhere, on any sue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, could you envisage your doing what the under secretary of state for political affairs is now doing? In other words, listening in, receiving, not negotiating, but meeting?

RICE: We have one chance to receive the Iranian response. That's going to be on Saturday, when Bill receives that response. I am prepared to go and talk to my counterpart anyplace, anytime, anywhere. But there really must be a suspension, verifiable suspension of their enrichment and reprocessing.

BLITZER: What about just participating in a meeting, listening in along the lines of what the under secretary is doing?

RICE: I think everybody understands, and we've talked to our counterparts in the P5 plus one, that this is an opportunity for Iran. Very often we hear, Wolf, well, we're not sure that the United States is really behind this.

Well, I signed the letter. Now Bill will go to receive the response. It's a bookend. I transmit it, the proposal, he will receive the response. That should give the Iranians every indication of how strongly the United States supports this package. BLITZER: So this is really designed as an incentive to them to do, from your perspective, the right thing?

RICE: That's right. That's right. And it is, by the way, a very clear message also that there is complete unity on both tracks, because, of course, we've submitted this proposal to the Iranians, but we've also designated Iranian banks and other entities.

Just a few weeks ago, a couple of weeks ago, the Europeans designated Bank Mili (ph), a major Iranian bank. Major companies are pulling out of Iran, like Total, which has pulled out of gas and oil deals there. And so the world is sending Iran a message on both tracks.

First of all, there are consequences for continuing to defy the will of the international community. Continued economic isolation, continued isolation that is leading to an ever-worsening economic situation in Iran, and on the other hand, a pathway out -- suspend and negotiate.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Iraq right now.

There's word, as we speak right now, of what Bush administration officials are now calling an agreement between the U.S. and the Iraqi government for a "general time horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Now, that's an ambiguous phrase, but it sounds like something you've opposed for a long time, which would be a deadline or a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

RICE: I think you will find, Wolf, that in anything we talk about with the Iraqis and anything that is agreed, that we and the Iraqis are going to want to be sensitive to the conditions. We certainly have views about how well the Iraqis are starting to do.

They are taking over security responsibility in the provinces. The day is coming when American forces will step back more and more from combat roles. The day is coming when we will be doing more in the way of training, and less in the way of fighting.

Those goals are being achieved now as we speak. And so it's not at all unusual to start to think that there is a horizon out there, in the not too distant future, in which the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. forces are going to change dramatically, and those of the Iraqi forces are going to become dominant.

BLITZER: Is this -- is that a euphemism for a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq?

RICE: I think that you will find that both the United States and Iraq want to be very attentive to what is actually going on on the ground. And to the degree that you can turn over provinces to the Iraqis, because they are stronger, because their enemies are weaker, because political and economic activities are taking hold, of course you will want to do that. And there is no problem in having an aspirational, if you will, time horizon for doing this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And there's a lot more of this exclusive interview with the secretary of state, including some political questions I asked Condoleezza Rice about the potential for the first African-American president of the United States. I get her reaction to that.

We also talk a little bit about, is it still possible she could be a vice presidential running mate for John McCain? Some politics in the interview.

The full interview will air this Sunday on "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk. That interview will air at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Sunday morning.

It's a story involving some very disturbing tales. Israeli officials are trying to determine if six people tried to establish an Al Qaeda-linked terror cell in Israel, and if someone wanted to target President Bush during his recent trip to Israel this year.

Also, Al Gore says something that has some people wondering if it's a vice presidential surprise.

And it's one of the most important things we can do as citizens. But what if you could vote for president on the weekend instead of simply on a Tuesday?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On his trip abroad, Barack Obama will be meeting with many world leaders, but he doesn't necessarily see eye-to-eye with at least some of them on one key Issue. That would be Iraq.

Let's bring in our Chief National Correspondent John King. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

When it comes to his position on Iraq, he's going to be meeting with some leaders who apparently don't necessarily agree with him that there should be, what, this 16-month timeline for withdrawal.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Especially in private, Wolf.

This is going to be fascinating, not only about the reception here in the United States, how does this all play out, does Barack Obama look like a potential commander in chief, but what kind of reception does he get? Let's go through some of the key stops.

He'll be going to France. Now, President Sarkozy did say almost a year ago he wanted a firm timeline for getting all of the troops, especially the U.S. troops, out of Iraq. The French have moderated that position privately a bit since then, saying they think things are headed in the right direction, they consider the war a debacle, they don't want a disaster on top of that by having the United States pull out so fast that there's a problem. So, publicly, the French are with Obama; privately, they're a bit more cautious.

Gordon Brown, the prime minister of Great Britain, just last week said that he would not have an artificial timetable for the remaining British troops. It's a very modest number, but they started to pull those troops out in Basra, and as you know, there were security problems. So, the Brits have slowed down a little bit in their withdrawal, and Gordon Brown says no firm timelines.

Israel, you know full well the last thing they want is a quick U.S. withdrawal, because they believe that would increase Iranian influence in the region and put Israel at risk. And Jordan is another one of these countries where Barack Obama will be going, where, Wolf, you have this fascinating public line versus the private line.

Publicly, the Jordanians, because of sentiment in the Arab world, say get the U.S. troops out as soon as possible. Privately, you call a senior Jordanian official, a diplomat, and say, what do you want? And they say both for economic and security reasons, they believe the United States needs to have a significant number of troops in Iraq for some time to come.

BLITZER: Like most of the Sunni-dominated countries, Jordan specifically, they're very worried about a Shia revival...

KING: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... if you will, especially an Iranian-backed Shia revival in that part of the world.

Now, he's almost certainly going to be wildly received in a lot of these stops when he's overseas, Senator Obama. How does the McCain campaign deal with that kind of environment?

KING: It's a tough one. And they acknowledge that. And you're right about the likely reception.

I was speaking to the French ambassador to the United States recently, and he said it's amazing. He gets phone calls not only from the media in France, but also from his own government, senior government officials saying, what's going on in the campaign? Can this Obama guy -- can a black man really win in the United States?

So the interest is overwhelming overseas. And they do expect large crowds when Obama has public events, or large crowds out to see him when he's traveling about.

On the one hand, the McCain camp is worried. It helps make him look presidential. It makes it look like a big deal. When Bill Clinton has traveled, when George W. Bush has gone to Africa, for example, those large crowds send a message, this guy's a president, or a potential president.

But you heard Dana earlier in the show. The McCain campaign says they're going to focus on the economy while he's away, continue to question his credentials, and hope the pictures aren't overwhelming. And perhaps hope they can say, look, he's in Europe, this election is about what's going on here in the United States.

BLITZER: And they could also hope he might stumble, make a little error while he's overseas.

KING: You do that in politics.

BLITZER: Yes.

All right, John. Thank you.

In our "Strategy Session," John McCain is keeping up the heat on Barack Obama when it comes to Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: We will win this war if we don't do what Senator Obama wanted to do. And that's set a date for withdrawal, and predicated on a date and not conditions on the ground.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But when Senator Obama's on his trip overseas, should Senator McCain cease and desist?

And McCain says Obama's voting record is to the left of the Senate's only socialist. Is this an example of McCain sharpening his message?

That and our "Strategy Session," coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now Barack Obama is set for his first trip abroad as the presumptive Democratic nominee, and John McCain is not backing off his criticism over the Democrat's plans for the war in Iraq.

Let's discuss in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, the Democratic strategist and political director for thehuffingtonpost.com, Hilary Rosen. And the conservative commentator, Terry Jeffrey. He's editor-in-chief of the Cybercast News Service.

Guys, thanks to both of you for coming in.

He's not backing down at all, Senator McCain, and he's going after Senator Obama with, among other things, words like this...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: We will win this war if we don't do what Senator Obama wanted to do. And that's set a date for withdrawal, and predicated on a date and not conditions on the ground.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right. That's his line. It seems to have some resonance out there.

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, you know, unfortunately Senator McCain doesn't -- it's not about winning the war, it's about staying in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki says you don't need to stay in Iraq to -- forever to win this war, a timetable for withdrawal is reasonable.

Barack Obama is where the American people are, they want their troops home. They want this thing over. And we need the administration now to set the goals for what it is that gets this war to be over.

We still haven't seen that. At least when Barack Obama's president, we're going to know that.

BLITZER: That's what the polls show, that the American people would like to see the U.S. out of Iraq.

TERRY JEFFREY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Sure, we'd like to get out of Iraq. I think they also question whether Barack Obama is qualified to be commander in chief, Wolf. And I think the biggest question mark there, is the policy advocated on Iraq?

John McCain did advocate the surge. The surge has led to tremendous increases in security in Iraq, but also political progress in Iraq.

I think John McCain has a great point, had we followed Barack Obama's plan, which was to begin a withdrawal, make sure all of our troops were out of there by 2009, that would have led to defeat, not victory, and disaster in Iraq. John McCain should not let this issue go.

BLITZER: Here's another line of attack that Senator McCain has on Barack Obama. And in this clip we're going to play he's referring to the Independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. But listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Well, that's his voting record. All I said was his voting record. And that is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That he's more to the left than Bernie Sanders.

ROSEN: Yes.

BLITZER: That's what McCain is charging against Senator Obama.

ROSEN: Well, I can't let this other piece, though, go unanswered, which is, you don't get to claim that you're going to win the were in Iraq when, in essence, we invaded the country, accelerated a civil war, and now we've brought peace and security and allowed of political process to take place that was already potentially under way. So that's just -- it's nuts to say that...

BLITZER: What do you mean, under Saddam Hussein there was a peace process under way?

ROSEN: That after -- that Saddam Hussein was moving, and we could have gotten him out. We had a process there. We were looking for...

JEFFREY: He had been there for 12 years.

ROSEN: We were looking for global solution here that would have been peaceful, that would not have put American troops in harm's way.

BLITZER: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on. I want to move on and talk about this charge from Senator McCain that Barack Obama is to the left of Bernie Sanders.

ROSEN: It's a -- you know, it's funny, but it's silly, because actually, Barack Obama is where the American people are on alternative energy, on energy independence, on health care, solving the health care crisis, on ending the war in Iraq, on increasing funds for education. John McCain has voted against every single one of those things. So, to somehow suggest that that's not where the American people want to be, or that because another senator has also voted the way, John McCain is not going to win on this issue.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Terry, you honestly believe that Barack Obama's more liberal than Bernie Sanders?

JEFFREY: He is. He's at least as liberal, Wolf. I don't think Hilary would be upset if he were to the left of Bernie Sanders.

BLITZER: But Bernie Sanders says he's a socialist.

JEFFREY: Well, I think Barack Obama is a socialist, and let me defend that remark.

First of all, I would say Barack Obama is the most left-wing candidate that's ever been nominated by a major party for president of the United States. He is to the left, for example, of George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy. I believe also to the left of Michael Dukakis.

But is he a socialist? This is a man who's campaigning with Hillary Clinton, arguing for who had a better nationalized health care program. A nationalized health care program, Wolf, is socialism. Another thing that Barack Obama... BLITZER: All right. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

Go ahead.

ROSEN: John McCain's been running to the left ever since he got his nomination. He's been appearing before Latino groups and African- American groups, talking about his increases in education, talking about how he's going to fix global warming. He has been moving every single position to the left. And there's just no reason...

BLITZER: Just because it's government sponsored doesn't mean it's socialist.

JEFFREY: Right.

BLITZER: Do you believe Medicare or Medicaid is socialist?

JEFFREY: Well, yes. Actually, I would say that Medicare and Social Security are flat-out socialism.

BLITZER: So Republican presidents who support Medicare and Medicaid are socialists?

JEFFREY: Yes. Well, but by definition, is Medicare socialism? What Medicare is, it's a government-funded...

BLITZER: But does that make these Republicans socialists?

JEFFREY: Well, let me answer your question, Wolf. The question is, is Medicare socialism? My answer is yes, of course it is. Socialism is government ownership of something.

What we've put together in this country is a system where the federal government provides for and pays and controls the health care system for seniors. So that part of our economy and that part of our life is socialized. Does Barack Obama want to increase the sector of American life that is socialistic, that is funded and controlled by the government? The answer is yes.

BLITZER: All right.

Go ahead.

ROSEN: Barack Obama is for reasonable energy investment, and not for tax breaks for oil companies. That's not about socialism, that's about equity.

Barack Obama is for a health care system that insures all. And if that means that the government has to help insure 40 million children, then we will, because that's what Americans want to see.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We've got to leave it right there, but a good, serious discussion. Thanks for coming in.

Ever wondered why Election Day's on a Tuesday? One Democratic congressman wants to change the day we vote. We're going to tell you why. That's coming up.

Plus, an mock Iraqi village, complete with townspeople, in the middle of the California desert. You're going to see how the military is using it.

And Iran and the United States go head to head on the basketball court. See how the NBA is doing its part to try to ease some tensions.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our Political Ticker, have you ever wondered why we vote on Tuesdays? Democratic Congressman Steve Israel of New York asked that question around Capitol Hill, and found basically no one knew the answer. He'd like to change it to weekends.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's working this story for us.

Abbi, why do we vote on Tuesdays?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, that's what Congressman Steve Israel wanted to know, and he went around Capitol Hill asking it, and these are some of the responses he got.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I guess because once upon a time all the taverns were closed on Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because people would forget to go to the polls on Monday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why would we vote on Tuesday?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe if Easter falls late on a Monday?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: No. All those responses were wrong. He did actually find someone that knew, and it turned out to be this guy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tuesday, do you have any idea?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, because the old Agrarian Society (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: Correct. The old Agrarian Society, the least busy day of the week. This was an 1845 act that established the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. November was picked because it was good for farmers, Tuesday because it was a practical travel day. People could start traveling on a Monday.

And Congressman Israel has introduced legislation to change that, to push it to weekend voting, because he says that's out of date. This would be more convenient.

He's launched this video in conjunction with the group Why Tuesday? They're a nonpartisan group who want to reform the voting system.

Don't hold your breath. This may not happy anytime soon.

On the Senate side, Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin has been introducing this legislation for years. No movement yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, there is a movement, at least in some of the states, to mail in ballots, making it easier. People don't have to leave work early or skip work all together, wait in long lines.

All right. We'll watch this story, Abbi, with you. But it's a good, good question.

Jack Cafferty's got "The Cafferty File."

Did you know the answer to that? I didn't know the answer to that.

CAFFERTY: No. But changing it to a weekend is the single best idea I've heard in a long time.

BLITZER: Me, too.

CAFFERTY: I mean, it's dumb the way we do it now. Do it -- you know, run it over two days on a weekend. Run it from 6:00 on a Saturday morning until 6:00 on a Sunday night. And let everybody vote at once.

Do the same thing with the primaries. And you know that would cost us a lot of money, though, wouldn't it?

BLITZER: Why?

CAFFERTY: If we did all the primaries over one weekend? We couldn't sell all those commercials.

BLITZER: Oh.

CAFFERTY: Sixteen months of primaries for every individual. Cost the boss a lot of bucks.

The question this hour is: What would constitute a successful tip overseas for Barack Obama?

Julie in Louisiana says: "It will be a success when we see Senator Obama representing us abroad and feel a sense of pride in our leadership instead of embarrassment."

Kent in Illinois says: "It's a given the crowds will be unbelievably large. It might be enough attention to wake blue collar workers up here in the United States."

Tony in Louisville says: "It will be a successful trip if he stays there."

Jed in Redding, California, "Let's consider the last two overseas trips by our fearless Republican leaders. We have George Bush turning the G8 summit into an international kegger, and then we have McCain's last trip to the Middle East, where he has Joe Lieberman tapping him on the shoulder every five minutes to remind him that what he just said about Iran or Iraq or al Qaeda has no basis in reality. After those two, Obama has a fair easy task -- go there, do stuff, come back, don't be stupid."

J.D. writes: "I can't imagine what might constitute an unsuccessful trip. He'll meet with world leaders, attract massive crowds, and capture the world's heart. Somewhere John McCain is sticking pins in an Obama voodoo doll."

Lisa says: "Barack Obama will have a successful trip by just showing up. Hell, after eight years of Bush, the people overseas will be thrilled to finally have an intelligent conversation."

And Jerry in Tulsa, Oklahoma: "The mainstream media is traveling with Barack Obama and will soon tell us what constituted a successful Obama overseas trip, right after the tingling in their leg subsides."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile, and look for yours there among hundreds of others.

We're getting a big, big response to that question -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Not surprised at all, Jack. Thanks.

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