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Deficit Soars to Near Record High; Bush Announces Plan to Shift U.S. Troops; Obama Facing Ohio Hurdles

Aired September 9, 2008 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, out of Iraq and into Afghanistan -- President Bush announces a shift in U.S. forces.

But does it represent a real shake-up for his war on terror?

Barack Obama about to make a very high stakes speech in a critical battleground state. He's trying to win over skeptical voters. We're about to go there live. You'll hear what he has to say. Stand by.

Plus, always outspoken, never afraid to offend -- Bill Maher joins us live this hour with his take on this unprecedented race for the White House.

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

A toxic combination of big spending and stagnant tax revenue is sending the federal budget deficit soaring. A brand new estimate by the Congressional Budget Office forecasts this year's deficit will grow to $407 billion. Who's to blame depends on who you ask.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Elaine Quijano. She's been working the story for us.

The president, as you know, he promised to cut the deficit in half by the time he leaves office. That was four years ago, when he was running for re-election. It's now basically doubled.

What are they saying, Elaine, at the White House?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what the White House is saying is that the higher deficit number simply reflects the cost of boosting the economy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO (voice-over): As far as deficits go, this one's a doozy. This year, the federal government is expected to run a near record deficit of $407 billion, according to new figures from the Congressional Budget Office.

Financial analyst Anne Mathias. ANNE MATHIAS, STANFORD GROUP: I think it's pretty significant. As a percentage of GDP, it's not that much. In terms of an increase in the size of the deficit in one year, in terms of projections, it's pretty significant.

QUIJANO: The estimate is more than twice last year's deficit. And it means President Bush will likely hand his successor an unbalanced budget that's a far cry from his 2004 campaign pledge.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I propose to plan a detailed budget that shows us cutting the deficit in half by five years.

QUIJANO: Critics, though, argue the White House set its own easy to reach goal posts -- allowing the president in 2006 to take credit for fulfilling his promise.

BUSH: Today I'm pleased to report that we have achieved this goal and we've done it three years ahead of schedule.

QUIJANO: But now, with the deficit soaring, the White House is blaming the ailing economy.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: One of the reasons that the deficit number did go up is because of the economic stimulus package from January.

QUIJANO: At the same time, officials make no mention of the billions needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO: Now, with Americans still feeling the economic pinch, Democrats are calling for a second economic stimulus package, despite the fact that it would add to the deficit. Yet the White House argues that instead, energy, tax and trade legislation would do more to help relieve the strain on family budgets -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This is going to be a huge issue out on the political campaign trail.

Elaine, thanks for that.

Speaking of Iraq, a troop drawdown in Iraq and a buildup in Afghanistan -- President Bush announcing today small but significant changes in two major fronts on the war in terror.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. He's looking at this story for us.

All right, tell our viewers, Jamie, what the president announced today, what he's planning to do and what it really means.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what he's going to is exactly what General David Petraeus has recommended. Sources say that President Bush approved Petraeus' recommendations lock, stock and barrel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): It's not what the Pentagon had hoped for or what many expected. The recommendation of General David Petraeus, approved by President Bush, essentially maintains current troop levels until next year in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be some 8,000 fewer troops in Iraq come January. But that's still slightly above pre-surge levels. Still, it permits President Bush to tell commanders in Afghanistan, desperate for more troops, that help is on the way.

BUSH: A November Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead deploy to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an Army combat brigade.

MCINTYRE: What the president didn't mention is that Marines going in November will be replacing Marines already there, but scheduled to leave. So the real increase in troop levels in Afghanistan won't come until next year, when the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division is sent there instead of Iraq.

President Bush calls it a return on success.

Barack Obama calls it the same strategic mistake.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE: What we've heard from the president today, which is essentially some tinkering around the edges and kicking the can down the road to the next president.

MCINTYRE: Democrats cast the Bush plan as a rejection of any timetable for further withdrawals, which, they argue, takes the pressure of Iraq's leaders for political reconciliation and leaves the stated goal of the surge unmet. But the plan does keep Iraq alive as a presidential campaign issue.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama has refused to acknowledge that he was wrong about the surge. He said it wouldn't succeed. Thanks to General David Petraeus and these brave young Americans, we are winning in Iraq and we will come home with honor.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: So along with the relatively high troop levels in Iraq, the next president will inherit General David Petraeus and the new Iraq commander, General Raymond Odierno -- two commanders who are both wary of pulling out of Iraq too fast -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie. Thank you.

As of today, by the way, 4,155 American servicemen and women have been killed in the war in Iraq. 2007 was the single deadliest year, with 906 U.S. deaths. So far this year, 245 American troops have died in Iraq. Let's get some more now on the shifting U.S. troops, what's going on. We'll bring in Michael Ware. He's been on the ground for most of this time, since the war back in 2003.

Michael, what's the impact? This year no more troops are coming out of Iraq. But January and February, they're going to remove about 8,000 or so troops from the 145,000 who are there right now.

What's the bottom line impact of this troop withdrawal?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Symbolically, OK, it makes a statement. Practically, Wolf, to be honest, it means nothing. Even when you take out that extra combat brigade, which is due in mid- January to February next year, that will make a total of 8,000 troops from now until then. You're still going to have the same or even more number of U.S. boots on Iraqi soil as you did pre-surge.

But what's changed is the nature of the battle. Essentially, America has put on the government payroll the bulk of the Sunni insurgency and some of the elements of Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, it's put the bulk of the pro-Iranian militias and their political wings into government.

So what we're seeing is that, yes, a phenomenal downturn in violence by any of the metrics used by the military -- between 40 and 80 percent -- violence has plummeted.

BLITZER: Well, Michael, let me ask you...

WARE: Deaths are down.

Who doesn't welcome that, Wolf?

BLITZER: Let me interrupt you. It's one thing to say that former Sunni insurgents in the Al-Anbar Province, for example, maybe 100,000 or so, are on the U.S. government payroll -- about $300 per man right now. But when you say that former Al Qaeda terrorists are on the U.S. government payroll right now, is there hard evidence that we -- American taxpayers -- are paying Al Qaeda terrorists to be quiet and stay on the sidelines?

WARE: Well, you're not paying them to be quiet and stay on the sidelines. You know, you've brought them over to the other side. And now correct me if I'm wrong -- and I stand here to be corrected -- but I remember a statement from President Bush himself that those who are fighting with Al Qaeda against us are now fighting against Al Qaeda with us.

And regardless, Wolf, you know, I've crossed that line. I've been to Al Qaeda training camps. I've seen how they work. I've been to their safe houses. I know individuals -- not just foot soldiers, not just mid-ranking commanders, but emirs who are now on the U.S. government payroll.

And why is that a bad thing? Because the Sunni insurgents in Iraq were driven to Al Qaeda by American policies. The Sunni insurgency was created because America wasn't talking to them. Right from the beginning, in 2003, the hierarchy of the Sunni insurgency said to me, why are we on opposite sides here?

We were allies in the '80s. We have nothing against America.

And, finally, the deal was cut. And now you see the downturn in violence.

It's not a difficult calculation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Ware, what I don't understand and a lot of other people don't understand, put them on the payroll of somebody, but put them on the Iraqi government's payroll. They have billions and billions of dollars in surplus.

WARE: Forget about it.

BLITZER: Why do the U.S. taxpayers still have to pay these people?

WARE: Forget about it. Forget about it. They're not working for the Iraqi government, Wolf. They're America's insurance policy. The Iraqi government hates these guys. They resent their existence. They are essentially a U.S. militia that not only went out and assassinated Al Qaeda -- because they knew where Al Qaeda slept and they're not bound by the rules of war like the U.S. Army. But also, they are a counterbalance for America and America's Sunni allies, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, against the Iranian-backed militia.

So essentially, the Sunni Awakening Councils, these former insurgents, former Al Qaeda, are your insurance policy. You take that away, you give that to the Iraqis -- look what's happening. Already the U.S. military is trying to hand these fellows over to the Iraqi government. And already, the Iraqi government has started killing them and putting out arrest warrants for them.

So there's no love lost between either side. I've been with these U.S. militia. And they say we've dealt with Al Qaeda. The next enemy is this Iranian-backed government.

BLITZER: All right...

WARE: So now the real test for the next president is how do they manage this situation and keep a lid on the conflict.

BLITZER: Michael Ware with his analysis of what's going on.

Michael, thank you.

WARE: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Some of the stories we're working on this hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we're following all the day's political developments, as we always do.

Bill Maher, by the way, he's standing by to join us live with his take on what it all means.

Plus, Barack Obama -- he's getting ready to speak live in Lebanon, Virginia. He's trying to win over voters in that key battleground state -- voters who didn't necessarily back him in the primaries.

Also, we'll take you to one corner of Ohio where Barack Obama is facing some major hurdles in a must-win state.

Plus, the mystery surrounding North Korea's mysterious leader -- what has some wondering if Kim Jong Il is seriously ill, possibly even dead.

Lots of news happening right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're standing by to go live to Senator Barack Obama. He's getting ready to speak in Lebanon, Virginia -- Virginia a key battleground state in this election.

Earlier, both he and the Republican ticket were campaigning in the critical toss-up state of Ohio.

The GOP vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, was talking about energy. Right now, here in her own words, raw and unfiltered, Sarah Palin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Something very, very important for all of you who are paying such a hefty price at the pump, also, to fuel your vehicles, heat your homes, cool your homes. Through competition, as governor, I got agreements to build a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline that's going to lead America toward that energy independence that we must have for our security and our prosperity.

(APPLAUSE)

PALIN: Energy will be such a high priority in our administration. The McCain/Palin administration will expand nuclear energy.

We're going to expand our use of alternative fuels. We're going to help you conserve energy. And we're going to drill now to make this nation energy independent.

(APPLAUSE)

PALIN: I can promise you that we're going to have American energy resources brought to you by American ingenuity and produced by American workers. (APPLAUSE)

PALIN: You know, friends, our opponents have been going on lately about how they always fight for you. But since my running mate -- he's too humble to say this on his own behalf.

Let me say it for him. There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you. That man is Senator John McCain.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Just as in 2004, Ohio could certainly play a pivotal role in this year's election.

And as our chief national correspondent, John King, found out, Barack Obama faces some major hurdles in one key part of the state -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there are two big reasons that Republicans are suddenly more optimistic here. One is the newfound enthusiasm for the McCain/Palin ticket here in the conservative strongholds of Southwest Ohio. The other is evidence that Barack Obama continues to struggle across the state, in the rural southeast corner, where he was trounced in the Democratic by Hillary Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Portsmouth hugs the Ohio River, nestled in the hills and farmland of Appalachia. Small town and struggling -- wondering if the jobs will ever return and whether the old rule that hard times means votes for Democrats will apply this year.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK.

Is there a reason why you (INAUDIBLE)?

KING: At Scioto County Democratic headquarters, Chairman Randy Bashem sees the chance to make history colliding with historical reality. Some on the other end of the phone say they simply aren't ready or willing to vote for a black man.

RANDY BASHEM, SCIOTO COUNTY DEMOCRATIC PARTY: It basically comes down to that. And Appalachian -- it's probably the hardest place in the State of Ohio, because the population of the black vote in Southern Ohio is probably 2 percent.

KING: In Portsmouth's bustling Market Street Cafe, there is a hopeful vibe for Democratic. The younger staff is all for Obama.

Co-owner Mary Rase, a loyal Republican, sees a giant generational divide.

MARY RASE, REPUBLICAN VOTER: I think people more my age seem to be for McCain. But I do feel in -- overall that there is more Obama people.

KING: But the scene at local Democratic headquarters is telling. An office worker felt compelled to pin a flag on the cardboard Obama's lapel. The overwhelming issue here is jobs. Yet just eight weeks to election day, local Democrats are still rebutting rumors their candidate won't wear a flag pin, isn't a Christian and took his Senate oath on a Koran, not a bible.

STEVE STURGILL, OBAMA SUPPORTER: Oh, I have that question all the time. People that I talk to in our community still have grave reservations about that.

KING: Many older Democrats, like Steve Sturgill, say it's often tough to break through.

STURGILL: There's no doubt in my mind that Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He's not a left-wing crazy.

KING: Jean Carlson is a Goldwater Republican turned Obama Democrat. She sees questions about flags and faith as thinly veiled racism.

JEAN CARLSON, OBAMA SUPPORTER: I think it's an undercurrent. I think it's sad, but I think it's still an undercurrent here.

KING: Local Republicans say the race factor is exaggerated and that Obama is just too liberal for these parts. Whatever the reason, Obama's chance to make history could rest on whether he can change perceptions in small towns where change isn't always welcome.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: History tells you why that southeast corner is so important to Obama. Democrats have carried that region of the state in only three of the last 10 presidential elections. And those three times -- 1976, 1992, and 1996 -- just happened to be the only three times the Democrats have won Ohio and the White House in the last 40 years -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thanks very much.

John reporting from Ohio for us.

It's a massive machine that scientists hope will recreate the big bang on a micro scale and unlock mysteries of the universe in the process.

And you won't believe what the bosses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might be getting, even as investors lose billions of dollars.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol. She's monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Carol, what's going on?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's start in Pakistan, Wolf, where a newly appointed Al Qaeda chief has died of wounds suffered from a missile attack. That word from a guard who was also wounded in the attack. He says the death toll has reached 25, including three other well-known members of the terrorist group. The White House had no comment on the report.

Just two days until the seventh anniversary of the 911 terror attacks and the Pentagon has begun its tribute. The site of the building that was hit by American Airlines Flight 77 is being bathed in blue and white light. A large American flag is hanging from the building. A new Pentagon memorial honoring the 184 people who died there on 9/11 will open on Thursday.

Hurricane Ike is now in the Gulf of Mexico after battering Cuba today with heavy rain. Ike is now a category one hurricane. It spawned at least two suspected tornadoes in Southern Florida this afternoon -- one in the Miami area, the other in Key Largo. Ike is being blamed for 80 deaths, most of them in Haiti. The hurricane is expected to gain strength, possibly before hitting Texas this weekend. That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thank you.

Stockholders and your 401(k) lost a lot of money in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So why should the CEOs walk away with millions and millions of dollars?

Wait until you hear just how much they might be getting amid the collapse of those two financial giants.

Plus, a communist dictator and an international mystery -- where is North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il.

Plus, we're less than 20 minutes away from our one-on-one interview with Bill Maher. Stay with us. He's standing by live.

Also standing by live, we're going to go listen to Barack Obama. He's getting ready to deliver a major speech in Virginia.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, the ousted CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could walk away with millions of dollars in severance pay. We're looking into what the government bailout of the mortgage giant could end up costing all of us -- the taxpayers.

Also, inside Hitler's secret underground world. We have a rare tour for you of what was supposed to be Hitler's dream city far underneath the German capital. And the comedian Bill Maher keeps it real. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about the presidential race. He'll tell us what he really thinks about the candidates, especially the Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.

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

Their companies have lost billions of dollars in just the last year, forcing the federal government to step in and take over. Their investors are left holding virtually worthless stock. But the CEOs at the troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be walking away from their jobs with millions of dollars.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She's looking into this story for us.

There's a lot of outrage on what it all means, Mary. But tell our viewers what you've discovered.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the details are still being worked out. But the CEOs had contracts with exit packages.

The question now is will the government flex its muscle to cut those parachutes?

And it's becoming an issue on the campaign trail.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): The CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may have been ousted when the government took over the mortgage giants, but when they leave, they could still walk away with millions. Estimates from independent researchers show that former Freddie Mac Chairman Richard Syron could see a severance payout of at least $15 million. It would have been even more had the value of the stock not plunged.

James Reda runs a consulting firm for executive pay. He calculated the pay packages and says a big chunk of that estimate is a cash payment.

JAMES REDA, JAMES F. REDA ASSOCIATES: A guarantee is the company has to pay him, Mr. Syron, $8.8 million of cash in lieu of the stock awards that he would have otherwise have received for the past 12 months.

SNOW: For Fannie Mae's chairman, Daniel Mudd, estimates put his exit package in the ballpark of more than $7 million. Both companies declined comment on the severance. The director of the regulatory agency now overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said in a statement: "We are working through compensation issues and have nothing to say at this time." Both presidential candidates had plenty to say.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think taxpayers here in Dayton would not want to hear that part of their -- this package includes a multi million dollar bonus, particularly when so many people here are out of work. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We cannot allow this to turn into a bailout of Wall Street speculators and irresponsible executives. They cannot be rewarded.

SNOW: One corporate government expert says the payouts will be a test of how the government handles its new role as guardian of these mortgage companies.

JACK COFFEE, COLUMBIA UNIV. LAW SCHOOL: They're not going to give a golden parachute. The question is whether they're going to tolerate it. I think the government does at this point want to send a signal.

SNOW: Columbia professor Jack Coffee says the government needs to send a signal to other businesses there's a limit to federal generosity. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Mary, thank you for that.

The mysterious leader of one of the world's most mysterious countries is now missing from view. It's been almost a month since North Korea's Kim Jong Il has been seen in public, leading many to question whether he's even alive. Carol Costello has been investigating this story.

It's a strange story because he should have been seen.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I know. I wish I could tell you definitive answers but we don't know much for sure. There are clues tonight the leader of North Korea is not in control of his country. That's important information for the United States to have since Kim Jong Il has promised to dismantle his country's nuclear program.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: North Korea is called the hermit kingdom for a reason. Outsiders seldom see its leader, Kim Jong Il. He's so elusive, virtually no one outside the country, including U.S. intelligence officials knows if he's alive or dead.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: This is a very opaque regime. I'm not in a position to offer any comment to you.

COSTELLO: According to those who study Kim's regime, the North Korean leader hasn't appeared in public since August 12th. And the man dubbed dear leader did not appear at a military parade Tuesday, celebrating North Korea's 60 anniversary. His absence is said to be significant.

RICHARD BUSH, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: This parade is a major event in North Korean political life. Kim Jong Il appeared at the parade for the 50th anniversary. So this is something that he does as part of his job.

COSTELLO: A U.S. intelligence official says Kim, who has diabetes and a heart condition, collapsed on August 22nd and may have suffered a stroke. And two weeks ago, five Chinese doctors entered North Korea to treat someone. Others like Japanese scholar discount that, writing Kim Jong Il actually died five years ago. That would mean this video of Kim in 2007 and this shot of him with the Chinese vice president in 2008 weren't really Kim, but look alikes, substituting for their dead leader. It's improbable, but who knows.

BUSH: I can't rule that out.

COSTELLO: Hey, Saddam Hussein was famous for using doubles. He sent them into crowds because he didn't like to be touched. Guessing game is important, though, because if Kim Jong Il is no longer in control, does that mean North Korea will break its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons? Back in July it showed its intention to do just that. By blowing up the Pyongyang cooling tower where plutonium was extracted to build nuclear weapons. If Kim Jong Il is not around and North Korea's military takes over, all bets are off.

JIM WALSH, MIT: If these reports are true, we want to underline if, it comes at a time when the whole thing may come to a grinding halt because of the leadership problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: It's strange, if Kim Jong Il is dead or alive, we can't figure out or whether the military or one of his sons will take over. No one really knows. We know things like Kim Jong Il owns 20,000 videotapes and that he likes basketball. In America's popular culture a cartoon version of Kim Jong Il debuted in the movie "Team America." Word is Kim Jong Il for good reason did not like the film and tried to have it banned in many countries.

BLITZER: He likes videos, basketball, sounds like a normal guy.

COSTELLO: But we don't know if he's sick, alive, dead, it's strange.

BLITZER: Very, very serious ramifications on what's going on in his absence during the 60th anniversary celebration. Very significant, I'm sure. Intelligence communities all over the world are looking into this. Thanks, Carol, very much.

I just want to clarify, correct something I said earlier when I said no U.S. troops, additional U.S. troops would be coming out of Iraq this year. 4,000 will be comes out from the 145,000 who are there right now. Another 4,000 for a total of 8,000 will be coming out early next year.

Also, we have been informed by a spokesman for General David Petraeus the overall U.S. military commander, that starting October 1st of this year, 54,000 of those so-called sons of Iraq, the former Iraqi Sunni insurgents, 54,000 of them will be shifted from the U.S. government payroll to the Iraqi government's payroll. These are the former insurgents in the Baghdad area. Another 45,000 or so will remain on the U.S. government's payroll for now. Just wanted to correct the record on those two sensitive points. Scientists meanwhile are calling it the world's biggest experiment. They hope to unlock the secrets of the universe by reenacting the so-called big bang. We're going to show you the tunnels. Also beneath the switch French border where the massive experiment is about to take place.

Tunnels of a very different kind a look at Hitler's planned capital of the world.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Barack Obama has just started speaking out in Virginia, key battleground state. He's doing his preliminary remarks. We'll go there live in a few moments.

Other news, one of life's greatest mystery. How did the universe begin? Scientists hope to learn now information in a ground breaking experiment tomorrow. 10,000 of them have worked on this project and some say they might find the elusive particle that made life possible. CNN's Atika Shubert explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the biggest scientific experiment ever, 14 years and $10 billion in the making. The goal, trying to understand the secrets of the universe by recreating the moments just after the big bang.

PROF. MARTIN REES, UNIV. OF CAMBRIDGE: We've got to understand the stars, too. Because every atom we're made of was fused from primary hydrogen in a star which exploded before the sun formed. We are literally the ashes of long dead stars.

SHUBERT: This is the big bang machine or LCH, affectionately called the big bang machine at the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. The plan, beam particles around 27 kilometers or 17 miles of underground track at nearly the speed of light to smash them together and recreate conditions less than a microsecond after the big bang. Massive detectors will try and track down subatomic particles released from the collision. The most highly anticipated, the god particle. Theorized but not yet proven to exist. Scientists believe it gives matter its mass, allowing for the formation of stars, planets, and whole galaxies.

Researchers also hope to find evidence of new particles, new dimensions, and possibly the elusive dark energy and dark matter that scientists believe make up most of the universe.

There are detractors. On YouTube you get this. Some fear the experiment will create a black hole that will swallow the earth. But they say this will not happen. Scientists say a microscopic black hole is possible. And this is what it might look like. But it would be too small and too unstable, winking out of existence in a matter of seconds. Critics also question what they see as astronomical billions of dollars in costs. But for many physicists, there is no question.

REES: I think you're culturally deprive first-degree if you can't appreciate the amazing chain of events that led from some mysterious beginning 13 or 14 billion years ago through atoms, stars, gag accuracies, planets and biospheres.

SHUBERT: Understanding how the universe works, these scientists believe is worth the cost and the risk.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUBERT: And tomorrow is only the beginning. That's when they begin to circulate the first beam of particles. The actual particle collision won't be happening for several more days, possibly several more weeks. So no risk of a black hole tomorrow, Wolf.

BLITZER: Atika Shubert, thanks very much. We'll watch this experiment.

Let's go to Lebanon, Virginia, right now. Barack Obama is speaking, making the case why he will fight for American taxpayers.

OBAMA: -- let me say this about John McCain. John McCain served this country in uniform with great honor and distinction. And we respect him and honor his service.

But John McCain has a very different idea of where America needs to go. I mean, think about it. This is a guy who supported George Bush 90 percent of the time. I mean, what does that say about somebody's judgment that they agree with George Bush 90 percent of the time? He said that he thought the economy under George Bush had made great progress. That's a quote. Great progress. He said just a few weeks ago he thought that the fundamentals of our economy are sound. The fundamentals of the economy are sound.

This at a time when we have the highest unemployment rate in five years and everybody all across the country is struggling. And he says the fundamentals are sound. Now, he's also a guy who said that, you know, you don't start being rich till you make $5 million. Maybe he's got kind of a different view of what's taking place out there. I don't think John McCain is a bad man. I just think he doesn't get it. I just think he doesn't understand what the American people are going through right now. I think that he has caught up -- he admits he doesn't understand the economy that well. But I think he's caught up with a philosophy that says you just give people more and more at the top, and you hope it kind of trickles down on everybody else.

It's -- they call it the ownership society in Washington. But what they really mean is, you're on your own. Your plant closes up and you lose your job, you're on your own. You're a single mom trying to look at your kids and want to go back to college and don't have the money, you're on your own. You're a poor kid born into a bad neighborhood, lift yourself up by your boot straps. You're on your own. That is the theory that we've been operating under for the last eight years. And I guess, you know, if you think that -- you know, somebody making $4 million is still middle class, maybe you think it's worked. But if you're like an ordinary person, making 30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000, then you realize how tough things are.

And that's why I'm running for president. Because that's what I come from. That's where I've been.

BLITZER: All right. So there he is giving his stump speech out in Virginia as well. We'll continue to monitor it and share with you any news that emerges from that.

Meanwhile, he's closely following the campaign and has a certain opinion on all the latest develops, including that rather surprising vice presidential pick. We're talking about Bill Maher. He's standing by live to join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Be careful what you Google. Some very old news about united airlines took flight. Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton will have the story. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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BLITZER: No shortage of material for political pundits, observers and comedians in this truly unprecedented election year. Bill mar covers all those bases and a lot more. The host of Real-Time with Bill Maher on HBO. That would be our corporate cousin. Sometimes we say it's our sister network. HBO, CNN, they're both part of Time Warner, as you probably know, Bill.

BILL MAHER, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": I like to think of you as the brother network.

BLITZER: OK. That is good.

MAHER: Since we are supporting the brother for president.

BLITZER: All right. What about Sarah Palin? A lot of people were skeptical at the beginning, but now they think, you know what? This has been a brilliant move by John McCain. He has rallied the conservative evangelical base and they are really enthused right now and it gives them the opportunity if he wants to go out to reach out to those moderate independents, especially, you know, married, white women, some of whom may have been disappointed that Obama didn't pick Hillary Clinton.

MAHER: Well, yeah, I mean, it is brilliant politically, but again, this is the ticket that is running under the banner of country first. It is really country first when you make your choices based on political considerations primarily? I agree with you. He shook up the race. I will tell you something, Wolf, three months ago I thought that John McCain looked a lot like bob dole in '96, but this is not another old man who is shuffling to defeat. John McCain never got the memo that he is supposed to lose this one, and that he is supposed to like take a dive in the third round. This is a fight now, but it is a fight now, because he is cynically picked somebody based on political considerations and I defy anybody in that party to look me in the eye and tell me that this woman is ready to be president on day one.

BLITZER: Here is what you said the other day about her, and I'm going to play the quip from you, because it has generated some criticism. I will play what you said. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAHER: McCain has been running this campaign based on where we are at war, it is a dangerous world out there and the democrats don't get that it is a dangerous war and I, John McCain, is the only one standing between the blood thirty al Qaedas and you. But if I die, this stewardess can handle it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: OK. David Brooks, the conservative columnist writing in the "New York Times" today said, "Many liberals claim to love the working class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant. Obama needs to attack Bill Maher for calling her a stewardess and the rest of the coastal condescenders." I don't know if you saw that column but what do you think?

MAHER: Well, she's not a stewardess but I'm a comedian. Wolf, I was taking a little poetic license, and you could tell by the way the crowd was laughing that people did get it. As a comedian I do go by that indication more than others.

BLITZER: And you used to have a show called "Politically Incorrect" and you are still quote willing to be politically incorrect?

MAHER: Yes, I will take poetic license. I am not a pundit or politician and I'm allowed to do that, but the essence of what I am saying, I stand behind. I think that what the democrats have to do, because the media is not doing it is to stop being intimidated by the idea that we cannot criticize Sarah Palin because she is a woman or she is from a small town -- all that stuff they put out there. That, that has so far been working both I think on the democrats on the media. I am sorry, but this woman's record should be up for grabs. She is a creationist, and she doesn't believe in global warming. She is for abstinence education and we saw how well that worked out with her daughter. I am not against her, because she is from a small town, but I am against her, because she seems to have a small mind.

BLITZER: The McCain camp has shifted and they are not talking about experience anymore, but talking about how he is the candidate of change. Listen to what he says now on the campaign trail.

MAHER: I stand by because change is coming, and real change is coming to Washington, D.C., and we are going to shake things up. And you have a team of mavericks.

BLITZER: All right. He says he is willing to shake things up and go against his own party and something that Barack Obama has really never done.

MAHER: Well, Barack Obama doesn't really have to go against his whole party, because they are not in power. But this idea that McCain is the candidate of change -- he is the candidate who needs to be changed. This is a trick that I have never seen, I mean, in the republicans you have to give it up to them, that they are brilliant at running the campaigns and saying that black is white and up is down, but to be running as the candidate of change when you have voted for the president 90 percent, with the president 90 percent of the time and when you are a republican even though they don't want to use that word. It is astounding to me that this guy is even ahead now. How can the American public who plainly doesn't like the way things are going, how can they say to themselves, well, we don't like what we have been eating for the last eight years and it has made us sick, so let's order it again.

BLITZER: Because he is ahead in the some polls, some of the national polls. What does Senator Obama need to do to regain the momentum that he apparently lost after the republican convention?

MAHER: Well, first of all like I said, don't be afraid to criticize Sarah Palin. And second of all, get the election off of the vice presidency. This is about the presidency. She is a tremendous distraction and that what they wanted, and that is what they got. And you know, remind people that what they are saying is just plainly not true. When they say things like the democrats will raise your taxes, and this is what I heard over and over at the republican convention, and speaker after speaker said that the democrats will raise your taxes. Now, of course, they were speaking to the people in the hall. That is true of the people in the hall, because they were millionaires. But it is not true of the most people in the United States. Or we are coming up on the anniversary of 9/11 and how about saying they never got bin laden and that was the big thing. Don't you think that if the situation was reversed, the entire republican convention would have been about the democrats did not ever get Osama Bin Laden, balloon drop, we are out.

BLITZER: And Bill Maher is host of "Real-time with Bill Maher" which hosts on our brotherly network HBO. Come back and we will see you soon. Bill Maher joining us.

Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Both sides are using the bridge to nowhere as a campaign point, but what is it exactly and was Sarah Palin really for it before she was against it? We have a CNN fact check that lays out the truth for you. Stay with us here in the situation room.

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