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THE SITUATION ROOM

Russian Tanks on the Move; McCain Takes Hard Line on Moscow; Interview With Governor Bill Richardson

Aired August 11, 2008 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And happening now, breaking news. Russian troops push deeper into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia amid fears of a full-scale war.
John McCain sees an opening to try to prove he would be a tough commander in chief. Barack Obama on vacation, leaves McCain with a global spotlight to himself. I'll ask Democratic Governor Bill Richardson how Obama would handle Russia's invasion of Georgia.

And the Obama camp is finalizing its convention plans with feature roles for Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton. Is it enough to keep her supporters from causing trouble at the convention?

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm John Roberts. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It is a major escalation in an already dangerous and deadly conflict. Russian tanks advancing on two fronts in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia today.

Moscow's forces pushed beyond two breakaway provinces at the center of the fighting, into key cities today. Fighting now is raging in several parts of the Republic of Georgia.

Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, seen here taking cover, is calling for a cease-fire. He says his independent nation is in the process of being wiped out. Russia responded today with overwhelming reports to Georgia's crackdown Thursday on separatist fighters supported by Moscow, and it sent ships to patrol off Georgia's Black Sea coast.

The United States says it has evacuated 170 Americans from the Georgian republic and plans another convoy out tomorrow.

President Bush plans to make a statement about the conflict soon, and we will go to that live and bring it to you here on THE SITUATION ROOM.

First though, CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi for us, and he's got the latest from the ground.

Good evening to you, Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, John. Yes, the Georgian government is telling us that, effectively, Russian forces have cut this country in half by capturing a very important strategic road, and also being in control of a very important strategic town that actually leads into here, into the capital of Tbilisi. What we're hearing from the Georgian forces is they say their forces are on the retreat and they are now trying to regroup in a town about 15 miles outside of Tbilisi to try and stop or at least hold up a Russian assault on Tbilisi, if in fact that is what the Russians were planning to do.

Now, the Russians, of course, are denying all that. They say they have no interest and do not want to go here to Tbilisi. They say that they will remove their forces once they have pacified the situation, as they call it. But certainly, the Georgian forces still on the retreat here tonight -- John.

ROBERTS: Fred, earlier today we had heard that President Saakashvili had signed a cease-fire agreement that had been proposed by the European Union. Where does that stand now? Are Russian officials in any frame of mind to accept that cease-fire?

PLEITGEN: Well, that's going to be the very big question in the next couple of hours. That cease-fire agreement is being brought to Russia by the envoys of the European Union and the OSCE. It was signed today by Georgian President Saakashvili and calls for both sides to end their hostilities and for Russian troops to leave Georgian territory as fast as possible. And it also calls for putting in place a peacekeeping mission that will probably entail Georgian and Russian forces, but we do not know, and we'll see in the next coming hours, whether or not the Russian also react to that cease-fire proposal -- John.

ROBERTS: Our Frederik Pleitgen monitoring the situation minute by minute there in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi for us.

Fred, thanks very much.

One American living in the Georgian capital is sharing her witnesses accounts online. Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton joins us now. Abbi tells us what he's seeing. Hi, Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John.

Melissa Scholz is an American, a 23-year-old, living in Tbilisi. She's been sending her reports all weekend into ireport.com, and she says she's now getting ready to evacuate.

These are some of the updates she's been sending in over the weekend: demonstrations in the Georgian capital, she said, which started small, but by last night, there were tens of thousands of people, she said, out on the streets with banners, nationalist, symbols saying -- waving banners saying, "Stop Russia" and "Peace." Melissa said she had planned to fly out on Wednesday, but with the news trickling in today, she says she's now going to be making a move.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MELISSA SCHOLZ, CNN IREPORTER, TBILISI, GEORGIA: I've been told that the plan is to move us to Armenia, but as of right now, people are anxious. But Tbilisi, the capital, it's rather quiet around here. Everyone's just glued to the news and trying to stay abreast.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: Now, John, we've just spoken to Melissa in the last hour. She says she was at a hotel in downtown Tbilisi. She says she's surrounded by other foreign nationals who are also getting ready to evacuate. She says the mood there is calm -- John.

ROBERTS: All right. Abbi Tatton for us this afternoon with that.

Abbi, thanks very much.

Fears of an all-out Russian war are front and center in the presidential race here in the United States. John McCain delivered a new statement today about the fighting while campaigning in Pennsylvania. Barack Obama remains on vacation in Hawaii.

Let's bring in CNN's Ed Henry now.

And Ed, this conflict would seem to present a political opportunity for Senator McCain. I have been going through his statement here. It's a full two pages, including an awful lot of history, trying to, I guess, show that he's got the foreign policy credentials to take the Oval Office.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, John. In fact, with those Russian tanks, as you noted, rolling deeper and deeper into Georgia, John McCain is really trying to seize upon this issue to show he's better ready to be commander in chief.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice over): Appearing in Pennsylvania with Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security secretary, John McCain tried to showcase his own foreign policy credentials by taking a harder line than President Bush on Russia's military advance into Georgia.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The United States and our allies should continue efforts to bring a resolution before the United Nations Security Council, condemning Russian aggression.

HENRY: With Barack Obama vacationing in Hawaii, McCain has to the stage to himself to try and show he has the experience to handle a crisis and claim he was ahead of the curve months ago when he started denouncing Russian leader Vladimir Putin's anti-Democratic moves.

MCCAIN: We must remind Russia's leaders that the benefits they enjoy from being part of the civilized world require their respect for the values, stability and peace of the world. HENRY: Obama has been getting briefings on the situation in Georgia and spoke out Friday, though he was not quite as forceful in denouncing Russia.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wholeheartedly condemn the violation of Georgia's sovereignty. I think it is important at this point for all sides to show restraint and to stop this armed conflict.

HENRY: McCain's offensive hearkens back to the 3:00 a.m. ad Hillary Clinton ran in the Democratic primaries to suggest Obama was not up to the job.

NARRATOR: It's 3:00 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Who do you want answering the phone?

HENRY: The ad didn't work for Clinton, but the McCain camp thinks the issue may resonate more in the general election with Independent voters concerned about security. Though McCain's claim to have a handle on national security could be slightly undermined by mispronouncing the name of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili three times.

MCCAIN: Mikheil Saakashvili...

President Saakashvili...

President Saakashvili...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now, an ABC News/"Washington Post' poll found last month that when asked who they would trust more in an unforeseen crisis, 50 percent said John McCain, 41 percent said Barack Obama. You can see there a nine-point spread for John McCain, but perhaps not as big as one might expect because of those credentials.

When asked who they trust more on the issue of the economy, Barack Obama got 54 percent, while John McCain got 35 percent. So a 19-point spread there for the Democrat, as you can see, on who the American people -- who they trust more to handle the economy. But still, John McCain pushing ahead on this issue -- John.

ROBERTS: And back on Georgian and President Saakashvili there, Ed, there's nothing in John McCain's statement here about the possibility of backing up words with U.S. military force. So is it just a matter of who's talking tougher here?

HENRY: Absolutely. It's really more about the rhetoric, because as you know, neither candidate really can do very much.

While they're both U.S. senators, it's really up to the president of the United States. It's more about trying to posture, trying to show with some tough language who can get out front on this issue. And in John McCain it's case, he's trying to say that he's been talking about this long before the crisis in Georgia.

For many months now, he's been pressing Vladimir Putin when he was president. Now as prime minister, saying there have been too many moves, anti-Democratic moves, if you will -- John.

ROBERTS: All right. Ed Henry for us this afternoon from Washington.

Ed, thanks very much.

Time now for "The Cafferty File." Jack Cafferty joins us. We take a little bit of a turn here this afternoon to John Edwards.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Let's get back to something tawdry.

John Edwards, the latest in a long line of politicians who have cheated on their wives. And without exception, they all thought they could get away with it.

Edwards' behavior is particularly offensive for a couple of reasons. One, his wife has incurable cancer. And back when Bill Clinton got caught with Monica Lewinsky, well, Mr. Edwards couldn't wait to jump right in. He said Clinton "... has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, his wife, and his daughter." So in the end, Edwards is the consummate phony.

Mike Lupica wrote in "The New York Daily News" this morning there should be some official condition to describe guys like Edwards. Quoting Mike now, "Call it political bipolar disorder, afflicting those who they think can rule the world, set the moral compass for everybody else and can't keep their own zippers in place. It's not just Elizabeth Edwards who deserves better. We all do."

Edwards insisted last week this affair has been over since 2006, but "The National Enquirer" says he spent half the night in a hotel room with Rielle Hunter as recently as a few weeks ago. The child at the center of this story has no father listed on the birth certificate, and his mother refuses to do a paternity test to see if John Edwards is his father, which automatically qualifies her, no doubt, as mother of the year material.

The sex won't ruin Edwards career, the hypocrisy will. A recent survey by "Ladies' Home Journal" found that 35 percent of American women say their opinion on the happiness of a presidential candidate's marriage will impact their vote.

Here's the question then: How much does it matter to you if a politician cheats on his wife? You can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

ROBERTS: That should prompt some interesting responses.

CAFFERTY: Yes, 6,000 e-mails to "The Cafferty File" over the weekend. I wasn't even here. Most of it about this. ROBERTS: Is that as many as you get normally when you're here?

CAFFERTY: No, no. I don't get any on the weekend. I'm not -- you know, yes, it might be as many as we get on an ordinary day when I'm here.

ROBERTS: Let's hope.

Jack, thanks very much. We'll see you again soon.

CAFFERTY: All right.

ROBERTS: Russia's military moves in Georgia could make foreign policy experience more important for Barack Obama's potential running mate. We're going to talk with one prospect, New Mexico Governor and former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson.

Plus, the Democrats' big party in Denver. We have new details today about the lineup and the possibility that Hillary Clinton's supporters might not follow the script.

And a behind-the-scenes look at Senator Clinton's losing battle for the Democratic nomination: the turmoil, the infighting and the ammunition for John McCain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: We're following the breaking news today in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The bloody conflict there intensifies. Moments from now, President Bush will give a live statement about the conflict. He has just returned from Beijing.

As we reported, the Russian military is pushing further into Georgia, moving beyond the country's two breakaway provinces.

Joining me to talk more about the impact this crisis may have on the U.S. presidential campaign is New Mexico's Democratic governor, Bill Richardson. He's in Ft. Lauderdale this afternoon.

Governor, it's great to see you.

You said over the weekend that the key to resolving a crisis like this and something that Senator Obama would pursue if he were president is better relations with Russia to be able to talk to them about things like this. But, I mean, are they at the point now where talking would help? I'm wondering if by the time that Senator Obama or President Obama then got a chance to talk with president -- or Prime Minister Putin or President Medvedev, that they would already be taking over the country.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, the point that I was making, John, is that the American/Russian relationship is at a very low ebb. We have no leverage open, we have disrespect. Russia's taking this action apparently in violation of what we want, NATO wants, the European Union wants. My point is that a President Obama will have a good, strong dialogue-oriented relationship with Russia, where these kinds of situations would not occur. And what Senator Obama has said is that we need diplomacy.

We need to go to the U.N. Security Council for a cease-fire. We need to get access to humanitarian efforts in the region. We have to talk to the European Union that is meeting shortly to put some leverage on Russia.

We need to engage Europe and NATO. NATO, I think, can be an important player here. That was the point that I was making, John, that Obama, I believe, is not rashly going to go out and make threats.

I saw Senator McCain saying that he wants to expel Russia from the G8, the industrialized nations. Well, that's only going to make matters worse. That's to the right of President Bush. He doesn't want to do that.

ROBERTS: Well, let's take a look at Prime Minister Putin here. For all intents and purposes, he appears to be pulling a lot of the strings here in what's going on.

He's a former, you know, expert KGB operative, two terms as Russian president. He's managed to hang on to power despite term limits, now becoming a very powerful prime minister.

Does Senator Obama, with three and a half years in the U.S. Senate, have what it takes to go up against this guy?

RICHARDSON: Well, the answer is yes, because he has the kind of judgment, he has the advisors, he has the knowledge internationally that what is key here is to build relationships, to build international support for our goals. And what Obama is saying, I believe, is what is needed: get multilateral pressure on...

ROBERTS: Do you really believe -- do you really believe, Governor...

RICHARDSON: John, get multi...

ROBERTS: I'm sorry, I just wanted to say, do you really believe that Senator Obama could talk Vladimir Putin out of what he's doing?

RICHARDSON: Well, the reality is that Vladimir Putin and George Bush have zero relationship right now. They are violating international norms today. And what you are seeing is what Russia is doing is indefensible.

The issue is, what do you do about it? And what Obama has said is, one, yes, you have to rebuild a Russian relationship, but you also have to insist that this not happen again, and use the levers of NATO, the European Union, economic sanctions, possibly a no-fly zone in the region, to really assert international norms into the situation.

Right now it looks like Russia is moving ahead and may be even do the indefensible, which is attack civilian targets, go into the capital. We need the full pressure of the international community to help us with Russia. And because our standing in the world is so low and so weak, we're not able to do this.

A President Obama, who would build relationships with NATO, with Europe, and his successful trip in the region, will be able to bring that leverage on Russia.

ROBERTS: Governor, "The Denver Post" recently said that Senator Obama should pick you as his vice presidential running mate, not for the least of which reasons are your enormous foreign policy experience. If he were to pick you based on foreign policy experience, would that be a mistake because it would highlight his lack of experience?

RICHARDSON: John, you really got me on that question. Look, I don't get into these VP issues, whether I'm being vetted or not. But the main criteria for a vice president is, one, yes, can such a person step in and be president, have the experience?

Number two, obviously it's important that there be a relationship of trust between the president and the vice president.

And third, yes, I mean, if you can bring some substance and some electoral votes to the process, that helps too.

ROBERTS: But Governor, is it true that your resume, particularly on the foreign policy issue, is much deeper than his is?

RICHARDSON: Well, look, having experience, having a record as Senator Obama has said, is not necessarily the best criteria. Look at all those that have supported this Iraqi war.

I think Senator Obama had the judgment, had the values early on to see that this war was not working, was not in America's interest. And so far, I believe -- look at the reaction he's had overseas, John, in foreign policy from Germany and Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraqis, the government, supporting his position on a withdrawal and a timetable.

He has really sent a message that America is changing, that America wants to lead again morally, economically, be the beacon of hope that we were in the past. And a lot of internationalists see Obama as that, and I think the American people are going to see that too.

ROBERTS: All right.

Governor Bill Richardson, it's always good to see you. Thanks for joining us this afternoon from Fort Lauderdale.

RICHARDSON: Thank you, John. Thanks.

ROBERTS: All right. Take care.

And we're told that Senator Obama will give an on-camera statement on the crisis in Georgia within the next hour. He's on vacation in Hawaii. We'll bring that to you.

Also ahead, if John McCain becomes president, he may have Hillary Clinton partly to thank. A magazine reveals startling tactics that some inside Clinton's campaign wanted to use against Barack Obama.

And every bus passenger's nightmare. A bus veers off the road, its tires ripped off, and a does a dangerous slide. The latest on what might have caused it.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And happening now, a bloody conflict intensifies as the desperate situation unfolds. We're monitoring breaking news in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Moments from now, President Bush will give a live statement about the conflict.

The United States condemns Russia's actions, but is U.S. military intervention in Georgia a possibility? Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is looking into that for us.

And Osama bin Laden's top deputy delivers a chilling message. Perhaps equally startling is how he delivers it.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm John Roberts. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Democrats say it won't be just a convention, but a gathering to change the course of the nation. Their convention is exactly two weeks away now, and they have announced speakers and themes.

Monday, opening night, is themed "One Nation." Democrats say Tuesday will be a time to "Renew America's Promise." "Securing America's Future" is the theme for Wednesday. And on Thursday, "Change You Can Believe In."

Let's turn now to CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.

Bill, what does the convention lineup tell us?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it tells us that the Obama campaign wants to placate the Clinton wing of the party without spoiling the party.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Hillary Clinton will address the Democratic convention Tuesday night, on the 88th anniversary of women getting the right to vote.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: We are one party. We share one vision. SCHNEIDER: It sounds like she's playing good soldier, but some of her supporters may not be ready to lock arms and sing "Kumbaya." There will be more than 10,000 reporters at the convention and very little real news. Political conventions have become heavily scripted.

OBAMA: Our staffs are in communication with Senator Clinton's staffs, but I don't anticipate any problems.

SCHNEIDER: The media will be looking for conflict. One pro- Clinton group says it has filmed a television commercial for Senator Clinton that will run next week on cable and Denver television. Another pro-Clinton group is planning marches and rallies the day Clinton speaks.

What do they want? Senator Clinton's name placed in nomination, something she would have to sign off on, plus speeches on behalf of her candidacy, and a role call vote. Over 1,600 delegates will be Clinton supporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

E.J. DIONNE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And 200 Clinton supporters is all it would take, if they really wanted to be difficult, to make a mess at the convention.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: Senator Clinton seemed to encourage them when she said:

CLINTON: I think that, you know, people want to feel like, OK, it's a catharsis, we're here, we did it, and then everybody get behind Senator Obama.

SCHNEIDER: A catharsis?

OBAMA: I don't think we're looking for catharsis. I think what we're looking for is energy and excitement about the prospect of changing this country.

SCHNEIDER: See? Conflict already.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: One possible reason why Obama will be delivering his acceptance speech in a stadium -- 1,600 Clinton supporters will be lost in a sea of 73,000 Obama fans -- John.

ROBERTS: And, Bill, every -- every ticket for that event is -- is -- is sold now?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I'm not sure they sold them. I think they gave them away.

ROBERTS: Ah.

SCHNEIDER: But they gave them away within about a day.

ROBERTS: Unbelievable.

Bill Schneider for us -- Bill, thanks very much.

As Bill noted, there are questions about whether or not Hillary Clinton supporters might try to place her name in the nomination at the convention. As a result, the Obama camp reportedly is reluctant to have a state-by-state role call vote, which is a staple at every Democratic Convention after 1964.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We proudly cast our entire delegation of 186 votes for the 44th president of the United States, John Kerry!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Well, despite that, in 2004, John Kerry was not nominated unanimously, as Al Gore and Bill Clinton were before him. Dennis Kucinich got 43 votes. The last time a woman's name was put in the nomination by either party was back in 1992, when Democrat Pat Schroeder got eight votes. Republicans have had a role call vote at every convention since the first one, back in 1856.

Well, they're e-mails that you're not supposed to see, inner workings from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign now being put out by "The Atlantic Monthly." The magazine pieces together what it says is a story of bickering and backstabbing that led to a complete meltdown.

The McCain campaign could be especially interested in how some in Clinton's camp wanted to take on Barack Obama.

Our Mary Snow joins me now here in New York. Pretty interesting reading, all of this, Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is. Political junkies soaking it all up.

It exposes a series of mishaps, but also includes one strategy raising eyebrows. A Clinton adviser wanted Hillary Clinton to attack Barack Obama for lacking what he termed American roots.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): A behind-the-scenes look at Hillary Clinton's fight for the Democratic nomination reveals turmoil and infighting. "The Atlantic Monthly" obtained hundreds of campaign e-mails and memos, including one by then Clinton senior strategist Mark Penn.

In it, he suggests Clinton use Obama's boyhood in Indonesia and Hawaii against him, saying that, instead of showing diversity, "It also exposes a strong weakness for him. His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who's not, at his center, fundamentally American in his thinking and his values. How we could give some life to this contrast without turning negative."

JONATHAN MARTIN, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, "THE POLITICO": Her top adviser suggesting that angle is striking. I mean, these are the sort of things that you see in e-mails that are circulating about Obama, is this sort of subterranean smear campaign against him, but you never see these things actually voiced by the candidates.

SNOW: Democratic strategist James Carville says there, at times, what he termed extreme opinions thrown around in campaigns.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Had Senator Clinton followed Mark Penn's advice, it would have cost her more angst -- much more angst and grief than it would have done her good.

SNOW: Is Obama's boyhood a theme that Republican Senator John McCain might use?

AMY HOLMES, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it would be very dangerous for John McCain to try to be going after Barack Obama based on themes of patriotism or who's more American. And we saw that, when Hillary Clinton even attempted to do it, that the backlash was immediate and intense.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, Republican strategist Amy Holmes points out, the McCain may stand to gain to look out for some points in the Clinton playbook. That is states where she won, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and to target specific voting blocs, such as blue-collar workers.

In one of the memos that was in 2007, Mark Penn did correctly say that she need to go after invisible votes, women, lower- and middle- class voters.

ROBERTS: There's another great e-mail that we were just talking about in that article, where Phil Singer, who's the deputy communications director to Howard Wolfson, has a meltdown when Patti Solis Doyle is -- is fired, firing off a lot of language that you can't say on television.

He subsequently took a week off. And Howard Wolfson said, hey, when the house is on fire, it's better to have a psychotic firefighter than no firefighter at all.

(LAUGHTER)

SNOW: Right.

It really is a fascinating read, because there are so many details of what happened behind the scenes in those -- in those months in the primary.

ROBERTS: Yes, it's really interesting reading, again.

Mary, thanks so much for that.

SNOW: Sure.

ROBERTS: We're learning surprising new information about the investigation into John F. Kennedy's assassination. It turns out that a future president secretly contacted the FBI to leak his doubts about the investigation that he was part of.

Plus, Barack Obama fights fire with fire, launching a new ad saying John McCain is the ultimate Washington celebrity.

And could the fuel crisis be eased by fruit? Yes, money may truly grow on trees.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM. And she's here now.

What have you got, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, questions are being raised over the Homeland Security Department's selection of Mississippi as a top location for a multibillion-dollar laboratory to study biological threats.

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, Homeland Security brushed aside experts' recommendations to select Mississippi, which is home to powerful lawmakers with oversight of the department. Critics say it's the latest example of the Bush administration politicizing government decisions.

It is back to prison for New York's so called "Preppie Killer." Robert Chambers pleaded guilty today to selling cocaine out of his Manhattan apartment last year. The district attorney's office says he will get 19 years and four months. Chambers has already served 15 years for strangling -- for strangling Jennifer Levin in Central Park.

And the country's longest serving senator has some advice for the next president: Be honest, seek dissenting opinions, and learn from your mistakes. In his book "Letter to a New President," Robert Byrd also offers a biting assessment of President Bush as a son of privilege who governed only those who shared his world view.

A spokesman says Byrd hopes to hand-deliver a -- hand-deliver a copy of the book to Barack Obama, believing he will win the election -- back to you.

ROBERTS: Carol, thanks so much for that.

In the unsettling after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the Warren Commission investigated, the FBI knew that two congressmen on the commission doubted the agency's conclusion. FBI officials knew because commission member Gerald Ford secretly told them so.

CNN's Brian Todd is following the story. He has got -- he has got the information for us now.

Brian, this comes from newly released records?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does, John, FBI records which give fascinating new detail into Gerald Ford's back-channel with the bureau, that during a very crucial period after the president's death.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): December 1963, just days after a young president's been shot. The nation's still shell-shocked, and an ambitious congressman, worried about how the commission tasked with investigating John Kennedy's murder is doing business, a commission he's part of, starts secretly telling the FBI about the panel's dealings. The congressman? Republican Gerald R. Ford.

According to newly released FBI documents, Ford told the bureau that two members of the Warren Commission had expressed doubts about the FBI's very hurried early investigation of the Kennedy's death. Ford told an FBI official the two commission members -- quote -- "still were not convinced that the president had been shot from the sixth floor window of the Texas Book Depository."

MAX HOLLAND, "THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION TAPES": There was a feeling that there was a lot more to know. And, although it seemed clear, you know, within a day after the assassination, that Oswald did it. But then he's murdered, and while in police custody, and there was a lot of questions.

TODD: Who were the two skeptics on the Warren Commission? The FBI memos don't say. Historians we talked to say attorney and longtime government official John McCloy had doubts about the lone- gunman theory, as did Democratic Senator John Sherman Cooper and Democratic Senator Richard Russell.

JIM LESAR, PRESIDENT, ASSASSINATION ARCHIVES AND RESEARCH CENTER: Senator Richard Russell made -- was -- felt so strongly about it, that he insisted on a separate session of the Warren Commission to record his dissent.

TODD: Why did Ford open that back-channel to the FBI in the first place? Some historians say he was worried that lead commissioner, Chief Justice Earl Warren, would too liberal and would ignore Lee Harvey Oswald's communist past. Others say Ford was overly sympathetic to the FBI and too wedded to the theory that Oswald acted alone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: We called the Ford Library and repeatedly tried to reach other representatives of the Ford family for response to that particular nugget. We could not get anyone to respond to that -- John. ROBERTS: And the intrigue continues anew.

Brian Todd for us -- Brian, thanks so much.

In the "Strategy Session": While Barack Obama vacations in Hawaii, John McCain has tried to sound presidential in Pennsylvania.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin must understand the severe, long-term negative consequences that their government's actions will have for Russia's relationship with the U.S. and Europe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Has Obama picked the wrong time to cede the playing field to his opponent?

And the CNN Election Express is on the move, heading to Denver. Tom Foreman joins us live from the road.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Barack Obama is on vacation this week, leaving the spotlight open for John McCain. Will the news media coverage be the same?

Joining me now, two CNN contributor, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Great to see both of you. Thanks for coming in on this Monday afternoon.

Let's start with you, Leslie.

Barack Obama ceding the playing field to John McCain this week. What does McCain need to do to try to take advantage, as his campaign suggests they're going to?

LESLIE SANCHEZ, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think John McCain is making all the right moves.

He's definitely out there. He's talking about the situation with Georgia. He's talking about his foreign affairs experience, and really looking presidential right now, at a time, admittedly, when a lot of people are not paying attention. They're looking at Beijing, watching the Olympics. But he is settling up a very good, strong platform for what's going to come with the Republican Convention.

ROBERTS: Hey, Paul, just a little while ago, we saw this two- page memo come out from -- from John McCain. It's the same that he made while he was Pennsylvania.

Barack Obama suddenly came out and said he's going to make a statement as well, which we will be carrying live. Is he forcing the senator's hand here?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, perhaps he is, but I still think it's a good thing to do.

The tape -- and this is all about optics -- the tape we have been running of Barack Obama shows him in a casual jacket, with a casual shirt with an open collar, with one little sort of lonely flag behind me. Doesn't look, frankly, like a president, whereas Senator McCain's optics are beautiful.

He looks resolute. He's got 50 flags behind him. And, more important, he's got six steps in this statement. I have got it, too. And I have been going over it. Six concrete steps he thinks we should take. He's ratcheting up the rhetoric.

The question for Obama will be, can he now turn this to McCain's disadvantage? After all, he could argue, the reason America is so limited in our ability to respond militarily, economically, diplomatically, is because of the Bush-McCain policies. I think that's where Barack should want to take this over time.

SANCHEZ: You know, what is interesting about it, earlier on this program, you had Governor Bill Richardson speaking.

ROBERTS: Yes.

SANCHEZ: And he really looked like he was still running for president at that -- in the sense that it was a confusing image.

Paul and I work in images. And he looked so much more presidential than Barack Obama, who is out there golfing in Honolulu, trying to choose between a mai tai and a pina colada.

ROBERTS: Well, Leslie -- well, Leslie, let's look at what Paul was just saying about this idea of John McCain's optics being perfect.

It's a lot different than it was during the primary season, not so long ago, when -- I can't remember exactly what it was you said about the speech in New Orleans with that lovely green backdrop.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: But you weren't exactly impressed.

SANCHEZ: Not at all.

But, you know, we have seen a change in leadership. There was a big scuttlebutt about that in the McCain campaign. You have to remember, in many senses, McCain is running the same campaign. He's strong on his issues. There's no fancy trickery here. It's really a distinct difference between his policies, his leadership, and his experience than Barack Obama.

And I think the images this week are very much telling of that.

ROBERTS: Let me -- let me turn to this new ad that the Obama campaign released. It's an answer to the McCain celebrity ad where he showed pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Barack Obama's campaign now claiming that John McCain is the real celebrity.

Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: For decades, he's been Washington's biggest celebrity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John McCain!

NARRATOR: And, as Washington embraced him, John McCain hugged right back, the lobbyists running his low-road campaign, the money, billions in tax breaks for oil and drug companies, but almost nothing for families like yours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Paul Begala, the -- the negative campaigning continues, but you have got to admit, this year, it's a little more creative than it has been in years past.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: It is. Look, that's music to my ears.

There are -- I counted -- I went to Barack Obama.com and watched that clip. There are six, count them, six images of McCain hugging Bush or Bush hugging McCain, or the one where we saw where President Bush was kissing McCain. That's music to any Democrats' ear. The giant albatross around McCain's neck is George W. Bush. And the more Obama links McCain to Bush, the better chance Obama has to win.

ROBERTS: So, Leslie, to that end, campaign manager Rick Davis came out recently and said that the biggest irritant to the Bush campaign in the last 10 -- or, rather, eight years -- has been John McCain. But, in saying that, isn't he kind of ignoring the last couple of years, where John McCain, in 2007, voted 95 percent with President Bush, and, in 2008, voted 100 percent with him?

SANCHEZ: You have got to remember, John, there are some people that say -- that would say the biggest irritant to the conservatives in the Republican Party was John McCain. This is somebody who's been an independent, strong leader, who -- you don't tell John McCain what to do. He tells basically what his vision is and what his service would be to America, big difference.

And it's not a surprise, it's not breaking news that we're all in the Republican Party. I think people acknowledge that. I think the difference is, you're looking at the seriousness of this candidate. And I think you can talk about celebrity and make it funny.

But, right now, if you think, 1968, the Russians invading Prague, it's -- there are a lot of similarities. I think it's going to raise this issue of foreign affairs, the strength, law and order, and I think it's an advantage to John McCain overall. ROBERTS: What do you think about that, Paul? Is this current crisis in Georgia an advantage for John McCain, at least this week?

BEGALA: Perhaps it is this week. But this is what I'm trying to get at.

I think Senator Obama and the Democrats need to be very clear- eyed about this. And they need to say, look, America is constrained in her ability to respond diplomatically, because, frankly, our president, in the eyes of the world, lied about a war. We constrained to respond morally, because the president, in the eyes of many, violated the Geneva Conventions and committed war crimes.

We're constrained in our ability to respond economically, because increasingly dependent on foreign oil and deeper and deeper in debt. And we're constrained in our ability to respond militarily, should we need to, because we're bogged down in a war, occupying a country we should have never have invaded. That's the Bush-McCain policies.

And I think that's what the Democrats need to do, is put them on trial.

ROBERTS: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Well, we will see if they can make that point.

Leslie, we have got to run.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: But thanks very much. Hold that thought. We will get to it soon, because we have got certainly a long time to go until the campaign -- until the campaign is over and the election is held, and lots of opportunity to talk to both of you.

Paul Begala, Leslie Sanchez, thanks very much.

We're standing by live to hear from President Bush. He's going to be making a statement about the conflict in Georgia.

Plus, on our "Political Ticker," a sign that John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards are not giving up their public schedule following his admission of an affair.

Also, a retired couple's dream vacation turns into a nightmare when robbers jump onto their boat and attack them with machetes.

And we will get a look at the world's most expensive house.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Here's a look now at some "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow. In Afghanistan, a police officer inspects a car destroyed by a suicide bomber who drove into a NATO convoy.

In Georgia, families flee their home from the fighting to find Red Cross humanitarian aid.

In France, the Dalai Lama receives greetings upon his arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

And, in the Baltic Sea, crew members aboard a German naval ship take time to relax out on the open waters.

And that's this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures truly worth 1,000 words.

On our "Political Ticker" today: Look for Barack Obama to make an unconventional announcement of his running mate. His campaigns say Obama wants his supporters to be the first to know his V.P. choice. So, they will be sent e-mail and text messages revealing his decision.

The Democrats' nominee-in-waiting also is about to take another turn as an author. This time, Obama is not writing about his early years or public life. A book on Obama's policy positions reportedly is coming out in September as a paper back and an e-book. Three hundred thousand copies will be printed at first and sell for $13.95.

A new effort by John McCain to show he has crossover appeal beyond Republicans -- today, he is expected to get and tout the endorsement of the mayor of Linden, New Jersey. New Jersey, of course, being a battleground state. It's significant because the mayor was a lifelong Democrat, until he was elected as an independent back in 2006.

A Massachusetts college says it still expects John and Elizabeth Edwards to speak at the school next month, despite his admission of an extramarital affair. Salem State College says it's consulting with corporate sponsors who paid the couples' undisclosed speakers' fee.

A college spokesman says the Edwards were scheduled to talk about Elizabeth's battle with cancer and that the school does not want to get into what he calls moral issues.

And, remember, for the latest political news any time, check out CNNPolitics.com. That's where you also download our political screen savor.

And talking about John Edwards, Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File." Hey, Jack.

CAFFERTY: John, the question this hour is: How much does it matter to you if a politician cheats on his wife? Not just Edwards -- there's a whole litany of these guys, Clinton and Kennedy and on and on and on who do this stuff. But the circumstances seem to drive the -- the reactions to these stories.

Jerry in Fort Lauderdale writes: "I lost a wife to breast cancer, and I would still trade places to get her back. I think John Edwards is beyond description, a low life to the nth degree. He 'coincidentally' made his admission on the opening night of the Olympics to try to suppress this incident even more. He says God has forgiven him. Not so fast, Mr. Slick. I don't believe even a weasel attorney like you can get off so easily."

Steve in Arizona writes: "A politician's possible extramarital affairs should be his or her own private concerns. It is none of our business, unless there is something illegal taking place. We will never know all the details of what happened and we should reserve passing judgment."

Jim in British Columbia says: "It seems that it does not matter. Otherwise, John McCain would not be a sitting senator or a presidential candidate."

Becky writes: "Yes, it matters. If he cheats on his wife, he might cheat on all of us."

Stephen says: "Here we go again. If Mr. Edwards' family was previously aware of this hot topic, then who's selling what? Shame on the news media: sensationalism, sensationalism, sensationalism. Don't we have bigger issues to deal with other than peeking into someone's personal life?"

Alan writes: "It's not so much the cheating within a marriage, but the lying about it to the public once that it's out in the open that makes me distrust a politician. It's a violation of trust in a person who is supposed to represent me, my values, my conscience."

Brian in Hollywood, Florida: "I don't care who they sleep with. I just want someone who knows how to run this country."

And Jennifer says: "I think integrity matters, whether it is related to sex or sniper fire. An honest politician is hard to find."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile. We got, as you might get, thousands of answers to this poll.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Yes. There's a lot of strong opinion on this topic as well.

CAFFERTY: Yes, and over the lot, as -- as expected. We have a -- a widely divergent audience here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ROBERTS: We do. And we're thankful for that.

CAFFERTY: Fix this damn table.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: That could be your second career.

Jack, we will see you next hour. Thanks.

CAFFERTY: All right.

ROBERTS: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And happening now: breaking news, Georgia's president forced to run for cover, as Russian troops push deeper into his country with overwhelming force -- an international crisis now worsening. Hundreds of Americans caught in the crossfire -- the State Department now trying to get them out of the conflict zone.

And President Bush back at the White House from China, and speaking out this hour about the fighting, now on the verge of all-out war.

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