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Obama and McCain Visit Ground Zero; Obama, McCain Campaigns Focus Attention on Battleground States; Prepping & Tutoring Governor Palin; Using the Clintons

Aired September 11, 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: It's happening right now: a presidential campaign truce at ground zero with John McCain and Barack Obama. They're about to stand together. Obama is already there at a place where America was changed forever seven years ago.
Also this hour, war and politics. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin sends her son off to Iraq. And the McCain camp works on an important mission protecting Palin's image.

And Hillary and Bill Clinton as wild cards in the Obama campaign. I will press Clinton insider Paul Begala on whether the couple will go all out to elect Obama or just go through the motions.

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

Exactly seven years after the attacks on America, the pain and grief still are too fresh for the presidential candidates to even consider campaigning as usual, at least on this day. But Barack Obama and John McCain are going a step further. They're appearing together at ground zero. And, later, they will both take part in a forum on national service. That forum will take place at Columbia University in New York.

Suzanne Malveaux is on the scene for us. She's over there at ground zero.

All right, we're looking at live pictures of the senator, Senator Obama, with Mayor Bloomberg of New York. They're waiting for the arrival of John McCain. This is an extraordinary development. We're going to show our viewers every step of the way what's going on -- these two presidential candidates, at least right now, Suzanne, deciding to come together on this seventh anniversary of 9/11.

Walk us through what we're about to see.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Wolf.

We're getting a bird's-eye view of what you're looking at, those same pictures, Senator Barack Obama with the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg. They are simply waiting for John McCain. And what we're expecting to see, these two candidates, these two men who have been battling it out for quite some time will walk down the ramp together.

They're going to be walking down, passing the honor guard. And, at the end of the ramp, they will see families of the victims. They are going to have private conversations with those family members. It is not going to be public. We don't expect that they will have public statements, both of these candidates very much sensitive. They don't want to appear as if they're trying to make this some sort of political event or get some sort of political gain from this.

They have put out statements, joint statements and separate statements, saying that this is really a time of unity. This is a time to stress a day not that we are Democrats or Republicans or independents, but Americans, simply Americans.

And so that is what we're going to see, those two men together talking with the families, offering their condolences, as well as their thank-yous to the firefighters, and then placing some roses at the reflection pool -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's going to be an emotional moment, too, to see these two presidential nominees walking together and, as you say, laying this wreath of roses over at that reflecting pool at ground zero.

And we're waiting. Momentarily, I suspect, Senator McCain will be showing up. But as we watch this picture of Senator Obama -- he's speaking with Mayor Bloomberg of New York -- earlier in the day, he had a chance to sit down for lunch with former President Bill Clinton. We will keep the picture up on the screen for our viewers.

What do we know about what happened there?

MALVEAUX: Well, we know this is a lunch. It was a private lunch held at a Clinton Foundation office in Harlem. When the two emerged from that meeting, there was a burst of excitement from people who were on the street. They couldn't believe that they saw these two men together.

It was about 90 minutes or so. They had sandwiches and some pizza, we understand. And they talked about some of the things that they wanted to accomplish. In a statement, one -- a spokesperson called it a great conversation, both of them praising -- Obama praising Clinton for the work of his foundation, Clinton praising Obama for what he called a historic campaign, inspiring millions of people to get involved.

It's not surprising, Wolf, that we heard such flowery language, positive language coming from these, this after a brutal and bitter battle between Barack Obama and --, obviously, Bill Clinton's wife, Hillary Clinton.

There was a time when there were some bruised feelings. Speaking with friends of Bill Clinton, he felt at times hurts. He wanted Barack Obama to reach out to him more during this time, to perhaps seek or ask for advice.

Since then, we have heard from Bill Clinton at the DNC just a couple weeks ago, saying that Barack Obama was qualified to lead the country, was qualified to be commander in chief. We heard Hillary Clinton give those similar words. So, this really is a process of these two men and these -- really these two families coming together and trying to unite the Democratic Party -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. And as we await the arrival of Senator McCain over at ground zero, we're showing our viewers these live pictures of Senator Obama and the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.

They're standing there. And, as we know, it's pretty extraordinary to see this kind of unity from these two presidential nominees on this day. But this is the seventh anniversary of 9/11.

It looks like John McCain's motorcade is arriving, if you look to the right of your screen. And he should be walking out momentarily.

Suzanne, stand by for a moment.

Bill Schneider is watching all of this as well.

And, Bill, how extraordinary is this, to see these two candidates get together, at least on this moment, and forget about the bitter politics -- and, I must say, over the past few days, it's gotten rather bitter -- and just focus in on remembering what happened nine years ago?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it is extraordinary, in the context of this campaign, which has been pretty bitter and free -- freewheeling and, of course, right down to the wire. It is a dead heat.

But when you think about it, for one year, exactly one year after 9/11, the country...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And, by the way, Bill, let me interrupt, because...

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

BLITZER: ... we see Senator McCain and his wife, Cindy. They're walking over to shake hands with Mayor Bloomberg and with Senator Obama right now. There it is. There's the handshake. Nice handshake.

But go ahead, Bill. I interrupted.

SCHNEIDER: I was saying, we're seeing a picture now of unity. For one year after 9/11, exactly one year, the country really was united, to a remarkable degree.

A majority of Democrats supported President Bush. There was a sense of resolve, a sense of unity in the country, that was really remarkable. It only lasted one year, because, in September 2002, the Bush administration began the rollout of the Iraq war, and the country began to divide once again. So, it was a short-lived unity.

But we're seeing in many ways a symbolic recollection of that unity right now with these two candidates and the mayor of New York. BLITZER: Mayor Bloomberg is giving them some instructions, I think, on what they're about to do.

Let's see if we can pick up his -- his -- his words.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: (OFF-MIKE)

BLITZER: It doesn't look -- it doesn't look like we can hear much of what he's saying. We can assume he's just walking through a little bit of the wreath-laying that's about to take place.

Let's -- as they go and pay their respects to the nearly 3,000 who were killed at ground zero on 9/11, let's listen in and watch.

Well, as you can see, they're making the walk now to lay the roses at the reflecting pool. They're going to be walking up this ramp, and they will be walking back.

Unfortunately, we -- we can't hear what they're saying, but they seem to be having a -- a chat. And you see Mayor Bloomberg and Cindy McCain walking right behind them.

All right, let's listen in and just watch this memorable moment.

Suzanne Malveaux and Bill Schneider are watching this with us as well as they make this walk.

Suzanne, you're right there. I guess you have a bird's-eye view of what's going on. This as area that was obviously totally destroyed, several acres. They're getting -- they're trying to put together a memorial there.

But they have a walk. And -- oh, there you can see that reflecting pool. And they're beginning to -- to get closer. They're going to walk back up there afterwards and lay their -- lay the roses at that reflecting pool.

Do we know why -- why Michelle Obama decided not to come, or has the Obama campaign explained that?

MALVEAUX: Wolf, they haven't actually explained that. And since -- since we have seen these pictures, I have e-mailed two people from the Obama campaign to see if we can get an answer to that question, whether or not she was with the daughters, taking care of something else at the time, and why it is that she wasn't able to make it today.

BLITZER: These are family members of those who died and workers, first-responders and others who are there, and they're paying their respects, as you can see. These are emotional moments for these family members, and clearly for these two presidential candidates.

And Bill Schneider, as we watch this -- and we can't hear what they're saying -- you were pointing out how extraordinary this is -- it's only about 50 days or so until the election -- for these two candidates to get together and -- and decide, you know, at least for a little while, no more politics. SCHNEIDER: That's right.

And this is very important to family members, because, for them, keeping the ground zero from becoming -- from using it in a political campaign is very important. In 2004 and other elections, they have been very, very zealous in trying to keep the remembrance of 9/11, the symbolism of 9/11 away from politics.

And, when candidates have tried to use it politically, the family members have usually risen up in protest. So, this is clearly an occasion that they celebrate, that they appreciate. They commemorate the fact that we are seeing the presidential candidates of both political parties uniting on this sacred ground to honor the memory of those who lost their lives on that day.

BLITZER: All right, Suzanne, I don't know if you're getting more information from the Obama campaign about Michelle Obama. But, if you are, share it with our viewers.

MALVEAUX: We understand that she is in Chicago, and she's with the daughter, Sasha and Malia, during this time.

And wanted to offer, Wolf, both of these men -- obviously, it was a dramatic day for so many Americans on the day of 9/11. Senator McCain was inside the Capitol Building at the time of the attacks. It was evacuated. And we understand that Barack Obama, he was in Chicago. He was attending a meeting.

And we are told that they had to evacuate the State of Illinois Building, where he was attending this meeting. And he talks about it, how people were staring into the sky, the concern that perhaps the Sears Tower would be hit next. And he, like many Americans, was making phone calls to friends and loved ones, concerned about their whereabouts.

BLITZER: The last time Senators McCain and Obama were together was at that faith forum in California in August. They appeared briefly on stage during their separate question-and-answer sessions with Pastor Rick Warren.

Later tonight, they're going to be doing a similar thing over at Columbia University. We're going to be televising that forum later tonight. It's a forum on service. And they're going to be questioned separately as well back to back.

This is all sort of a new -- a new aspect of this campaign, Bill Schneider. I don't know if you agree, but it's sort of unusual for them to be doing these separate back-to-back forums.

SCHNEIDER: It is unusual, but they probably wanted to keep this from becoming anything like a debate. A debate would not be inappropriate, any kind of political fireworks, on a day of remembrance like 9/11.

And I think candidates both understood that, and the organizers of the event understood that. They wanted to hear the two men, one of whom will become president of the United States. They wanted to hear their thoughts, their recollections, their proposals for the future, their ideas about the continuing war on terror, but without engaging in the fireworks and fisticuffs of a campaign debate.

So, they found an appropriate way to do it. There will be plenty of time for debates. Four have been scheduled, three between the presidential candidates. But today is a very special day, and they wanted to keep this day separate from the usual politics of a campaign.

BLITZER: Suzanne, you have spent a lot of time researching and reporting on Senator Obama. What do you know about the sort of personal relationship he's had with John McCain during his years in the Senate? .

MALVEAUX: Well, the two of them have worked together, and they have -- they're very familiar with one another.

They're not -- they're not close. This is -- you know, Barack Obama's fairly new to the -- to the U.S. Senate. The two of them have warmed up to each other. And it's something that they have -- they have worked on. Obviously, the campaign has put a bit of strain on both of them, particularly over the last couple weeks, even perhaps the last couple of days.

Both of them have pledged to have a kind of -- a very civil and cordial campaign. Both of them have admonished at times their own staff for stepping out of the box, if you will, and taking on a different kind of tone, a tone that we have seen in some of the ads and some of the rhetoric lately from both sides.

BLITZER: And that -- that relationship, it can get testy at times out on the campaign trail, especially the sort of attack ads that we see.

All right, they're going to go lay these roses over at the reflecting pool. They're going to walk over there right now. Let's watch as they do that. Actually, they're making a little detour and meeting with some of the others, firefighters who are there, other first-responders.

Let's watch this.

A moment of reflection for both of these presidential candidates, as well as Cindy McCain and Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, as they pay their respects and they remember what happened seven years ago on this day in New York City.

It's been an emotional day, not only in New York, Suzanne. It's been an emotional day here in Washington. We began the day in Washington with a very, very passionate and moving memorial service at the Pentagon, where they dedicated the new Memorial Park at the Pentagon to those who were killed on 9/11, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well, where that plane went down, and Senator McCain was there paying his respects earlier in the day as well. I guess, as -- as as significant, Suzanne, as it is right now that these two candidates are together, let's not get our hopes up. It's not going to last very long, is it?

MALVEAUX: Well, Wolf, you know that time is short, the stakes are high, and this race is tight. Both of these tickets offer historic campaigns and historic administrations.

But the truth of the matter is, we are just 54 days away from Election Day, and this 24-hour period to put their differences aside will certainly end tomorrow. We will see both of them campaigning and resuming their battle in gusto.

Barack Obama is going to be in New Hampshire, obviously the state where Senator Hillary Clinton rejuvenated, revived her own campaign, and where he still has quite a bit of work to do to win over some of those voters.

We're going to see Senator McCain. He's going to be talking on the talk shows in New York, out of New York, we understand, "The View," as well as "Rachael Ray." And, obviously, that's no accident, that those are shows that cater to the female audience. And that is an area in which he feels that he can make some real gains, particularly with his running mate, Sarah Palin.

BLITZER: And, as you know, Bill Schneider -- and no one knows the poll numbers as well as you do -- the -- this whole battle could come down to what women, especially white women, working-class women, middle-class families, how they decide they're going to vote in several of these key battleground states, specifically Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and a few others.

SCHNEIDER: That's right.

Women are a key force in this, as in all elections. Of course, they're a majority of the voters, and they have shown a remarkable willingness to swing from one candidate to another in this election. So, we're watching them very, very closely.

But there is one theme. And, in a way, it's symbolized by what we're seeing here. What American voters want this year, more than ever, is someone who can deliver what George W. Bush promised way back in 1999, the very day he declared himself a candidate for president and promised to be -- quote -- "a unifier, not a divider."

He didn't deliver on that, or at least he didn't sustain the image of a uniter. And of the things, one of the reasons why we're seeing John McCain and Barack Obama as the two presidential candidates is, both have a lot of appeal as uniters.

Barack Obama reaches across racial lines, across generational lines. John McCain talks about his ability to reach across party lines, and a long record of doing so. Both candidates have that appeal. And what's unusual about this election is, they're fighting with each other over who is the better uniter that the country is looking for -- what an irony that is. BLITZER: Gloria Borger is here with us, as well, our senior political analyst.

Gloria, they always say that the American people, they want a kinder, you know, sort of more quieter debate between these presidential candidates. But, always, we see the attack ads and the bitterness. It comes up. I think a lot of people are happy to see these two candidates together, at least right now, at 9/11.

But -- but I guess the bottom line is, I think their -- their -- their political strategists think that the nastiness, the attack ads, they actually work.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, this is -- elections are almost like wars, Wolf, in a way. And they're trying to catch each other off guard.

I think what we have seen during this campaign, though, is that negative ads really haven't worked, and the American public doesn't like the attacks. We have seen a lot of it, and I think they would like to see a lot less of it.

BLITZER: And there's no doubt that, as we watch this, about -- they're going to walk up that ramp and go back to their respective motorcades, and get ready for tonight's forum over at Columbia University.

Gloria, it's going to be a forum that will focus in on the whole commitment to service, what individual Americans can do to help the country, to help the American people. That's the theme of what's going to go on tonight. And they will be questioned separately by Rick Stengel, the managing editor of "TIME" magazine, and Judy Woodruff of -- of PBS.

What do you expect to see later tonight?

BORGER: Well, I think both of these men have a history of service, although very different kinds of service, to their country.

We all know John McCain's history of service. We know that Barack Obama has been a community organizer in the inner city of Chicago. So, I think they're each going to have very different stories to tell to the American public about the importance of giving back to your community and to your country. And I think we're going to hear a little bit of a different kind of conversation than we're used to hearing in political campaigns.

I think they may talk more about what unites them, rather than the policies that really divide them tonight.

BLITZER: And, as we watch ground zero, they're working on the memorials there, that -- everybody, I think, who's watching this can remember exactly where they were seven years ago on this very, very sad day.

They go back, Suzanne, to their respective hotels, and they do some final preparation for tonight's forum; is that right?

MALVEAUX: That's right, Wolf.

And you -- you can't help but think about what some of the issues are that these candidates and -- have been listening to, to voters just this last couple of years. And national security is really at -- at the top, really, one of the top of them, besides economic issues. And they have very different approaches, very different platforms, Barack Obama running on the -- the anti-war-candidate platform, his opposition to the Iraq war, from the very beginning.

John McCain is the Vietnam veteran, putting forward his own record of service overseas and his own military experience as the center of his own platform. It was interesting. Barack Obama released a statement earlier today.

And part of it said, "Let us remember that the terrorists responsible for 9/11 are still at large and must be brought to justice." He has been emphasizing that he believes President Bush has failed in protecting the American people, and that military resources have been diverted from Iraq and should be going to Afghanistan. We have heard Senator John McCain talk about the surge, the increase in troops, and how successful that has been in bringing about less violence in that area.

BLITZER: It's interesting, also -- Bill Schneider, it's interesting that, as far as the American public are concerned -- maybe we can hear what they're saying. I think he's just thanking all these individuals.

But let's listen in for a second.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Thank you. Good to see you. Thanks. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Good to see you, sir. Thank you, sir. Thanks again. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My pleasure.

MCCAIN: Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. How are you?

MCCAIN: Hi.

Thanks for serving.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Good to see you.

MCCAIN: No, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator? Senator?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you for all you do. Thank you.

MCCAIN: Great to be with you. Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: Thank you again.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator McCain, can I just (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Sure. Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow. Wow.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good to see you.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

OBAMA: What's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: David.

OBAMA: I really appreciate (OFF-MIKE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was my best friend.

OBAMA: He was your best friend, right?

Is there -- there some way that I could -- here, let me do this.

Reggie (ph), can you get -- he will give you a card.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK.

OBAMA: And what we will do is -- and what we will do is, if you can e-mail Reggie (ph) their address, just add the story to it. Then, what I will do is make sure the (OFF-MIKE)

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: Absolutely.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN: Thank you again. All right, sir. We will see you soon.

OK. Thanks, guys. See you.

BLITZER: All right. So, they shook hands, and they said goodbye, and they're now going to get ready for their forum later tonight at Columbia University.

Only appropriate I think, Gloria, that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who once was a registered Democrat, later became a registered Republican, now he's an independent, and he hasn't endorsed anyone, that he was sort of the host for this memorable moment in the -- on the campaign trail, when they both forgot about politics, at least for a little while, and came to this 9/11 site, and expressed -- and expressed their condolences and their remembrance of what happened seven years ago today.

BORGER: Yes, I -- it -- it was clearly something both men -- it was not easy for these -- for these men. And I think it's a site at which you sort of put politics aside, and you -- some things are a lot more important.

BLITZER: I don't know whose idea it was. Maybe it was Mayor Bloomberg's.

Suzanne, do we -- do we know who came with this idea, that the two would come to the World Trade Center site on this 9/11 memorial day, and -- and pay their respects jointly?

MALVEAUX: You know, it's an interesting question, because we have asked the campaigns, and both of them have said that they thought it was a good idea. But who came up with it first, I guess that really would be the -- the winner in all of this, the person who decided to bring them all together. But we know Bloomberg was instrumental.

BLITZER: Yes, and it -- it would be an appropriate -- an appropriate event for him to host, if you will, the mayor of New York City, who is there right now. And, as I said, he hasn't endorsed anyone, and sort of in the middle. He's got a very good relationship with both of these candidates, with John McCain and with Barack Obama. He's had separate events with both of them.

And, at one point, Bill Schneider, there was even some speculation that he would be a good running mate for either of these campaigns, either of these candidates. That obviously didn't happen.

SCHNEIDER: Did not happen, though he was interested. He -- he has expressed interest in even trying to overcome the term limitation law in New York and running for another term. He's a very popular mayor of New York. He's been a very effective mayor of New York.

You may remember, after 9/11, Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and talked about staying on as mayor for a period of time. That did not happen. He endorsed Mayor Bloomberg as his successor. And Bloomberg has been really a remarkably effective and successful mayor of New York, very, very popular in the city.

BLITZER: I was going to ask you, Bill, about the latest poll numbers we have.

When we talk about the most important issues affecting the American voters right now -- you know, in -- in the 2002 election, the midterm elections, 2004 presidential year, 2006, only two years ago, Iraq and the war on terror were right up there. But now we're getting a very different response from people that we question.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. There's been a very powerful shift in the agenda over the last seven years.

Terrorism was the top issue for the 2002 midterm. Terrorism was the top issue in the 2004 presidential election. It helped George Bush get reelected.

In 2006, the agenda shifted and there was a lot of anger about the Iraq war. And that was the issue that really enabled the Democrats to take over Congress for the first time in 12 years. They gained control of both houses of Congress because of widespread public anger over the Iraq war.

And now both of those issues have diminished in importance and the number one issue by far cited by the majority of Americans all across the country is the economy. When the economy is bad, the economy is the issue. The economy is very bad right now, and it has surpassed terrorism and Iraq as the number one concern.

BLITZER: You saw Barack Obama and John McCain place a rose in memory of all those killed on 9/11 there at the reflecting pool at the what once was the World Trade Center in New York.

President Bush, by the way, is marking September 11th for the last time as commander in chief. He led a moment of silence over at the White House. It was one of many ceremonies held today at the scenes of the terror attacks and across the nation. Mr. Bush also went to the Pentagon to help dedicate a memorial to the 184 victims who died there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE. W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People from across our nation will come here to remember friends and loved ones who never had the chance to say good-bye. A memorial can never replace what those of you mourning a loved one have lost. We pray that you will find some comfort amid the peace of these grounds. We pray that you will find strength in knowing that our nation will always grieve with you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And over at Ground Zero in New York, earlier this morning, the names were read of all 2,751 people killed when the twin towers collapsed. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg remembered a day that ended as none ever has.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK: Today marks the seventh anniversary of the day our world was broken. It lives forever in our hearts and in our history, a tragedy that unites us in a common memory and a common story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a tribute to the 40 passengers and crew members of the plane that went down there. Senator John McCain took part in that service. He honored the heroes who fought back against terrorists onboard that aircraft and possibly prevented the plane from killing hundreds at the U.S. Capitol.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: They and very possibly I owe our lives to the passengers who summoned the courage and love necessary to deprive our depraved and hateful enemies their terrible triumph.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On Capitol Hill here in Washington today, lawmakers bowed their heads in silence. Again, the usual partisan rancor set aside to grieve and remember.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, Sarah Palin and federal earmarks. John McCain's running mate says she opposes wasteful spending on so-called pork projects, but is she telling the whole truth? Randi Kaye is in Anchorage, Alaska, right now. She's comparing Palin's rhetoric to her record.

Also, going after Osama bin Laden. A senior U.S. intelligence official tells CNN there's been a major shift in the rules of engagement when it comes to hunting terrorists.

Brian Todd is working the story and he has details.

And the Pentagon unveils that dramatic memorial to 9/11. We're going to explain the symbolism behind it and tell it you what Donald Rumsfeld said in a rare public appearance since stepping down as defense secretary.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The presidential race will all boil down to who wins individual states. We have some fresh poll numbers on where things stand in three battleground states that both of these senators desperately want to win.

The Quinnipiac University poll shows that in Florida McCain has a slight lead over Obama. In Ohio, the reverse, with Obama having a slight read over McCain. And in Pennsylvania, Obama has an even slimmer lead over McCain. You see the numbers.

Might any of this offer clues on where the campaigns will focus their attention in these remaining final weeks?

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is joining us now. He's at the CNN Election Center.

John, both of these campaigns, they have to make important decisions where to focus in these very precious final days. What are we seeing?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, especially in those three states you just noted. Remarkably competitive race in some of the key electoral battlegrounds.

Let's look quickly. You mentioned Pennsylvania, 21 electoral votes there. We have it leaning Obama right now, although if those polls keep close, that might end up back in the tossup.

Ohio is a tossup state right now, 20 electoral votes. Florida a tossup state, 27 electoral votes, but trending McCain.

Let's take a look. One of the things we've learned in the last couple of days is that Bill Clinton plans to campaign with Barack Obama soon. One of the places we are told to look for that to happen is the state of Florida.

Obama struggling at the moment in a few places. Number one, John McCain has a 20-point lead in that new poll among white voters. You find right in here -- this is where the close elections in Florida are decided, the I-4 Corridor from St. Petersburg, Tampa, over to Orlando, over to the coast. A lot of white voters in this area here, a lot of Independent swing voters in here. This is a critical area.

One other key area for Barack Obama would be down here. He has been struggling among Jewish voters. Not a huge part of the population, but again, in a very competitive Florida election, the Jewish vote down here in southeast Florida could be very important, as well. His proposal that he would sit down and meet with Ahmadinejad of Iran without conditions has hurt Obama a bit, and the McCain campaign trying to take advantage of that.

So, when you look at Florida, look at this stripe here and look down here. And we'll watch and see exactly where Bill Clinton goes in the days ahead.

Let me show you one other state, Wolf, and then maybe we'll have a little bit more time. I want to come back to the state of Pennsylvania. We'll move this up. This state is getting closer, and the McCain campaign is encouraged.

Why is that? Number one, remember, the light blue is where Hillary Clinton won in the primaries. Out here and out here, although in this state, John McCain leads only narrowly among Independents, and his margin among white voters is much smaller than in Florida. If McCain is to be more competitive in Pennsylvania, he needs to improve his standing among white voters, especially in these blue collar areas, from Scranton, down to Allentown, from Pittsburgh up to Erie, that we talked about so much in the Democratic primaries -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're hearing from Dana Bash -- and we're going be talking to her in a moment -- that McCain and Palin, they're going to be spending a lot of time together out there on the campaign trail. Where are they heading?

KING: Well, they think that the energy of the two of them together campaigning does increases intensity among the Republican base. We do know she will be campaigning on her own a little bit.

Sarah Palin will start out here, in the Mountain West, next week, Nevada, Colorado, where they believe she has considerable appeal. But then watch this state, Wolf. Watch the state of Ohio.

We also believe we'll see Sarah Palin solo and then with John McCain out in this area. And this is a critical state. Republicans must keep it, trending McCain right now, but not as much as they want.

Two key areas -- right down here, the Cincinnati/Dayton area, southwest Ohio. This is the key to the Republican base. Also, a lot of Independent voters up here. And right in here, in the Canton/Akron area.

Akron here, Youngstown here. This right here is Stark County. Canton, Ohio, in here.

This is where you get white voters increasingly Independent. In both of these states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, both party IDs are down. There are more Independents, fewer Democrats and Republicans. If McCain is to hold on to Ohio, he has to improve his standing right up here in this little blue collar belt right here, and then in the Republican stronghold here.

And one more spot, Wolf, where we talked to you from the other day, down here in southeast Ohio as well, Hillary Clinton territory. This is another place expect to see Bill Clinton out for Barack Obama in the days ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We can't overemphasize Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida right now. I suspect both of these candidates are going to spend most of their time in those four states and maybe a few others as we watch what happens.

KING: Absolutely right. It may in the end come down to a New Hampshire or a Montana, but to get to that, for a little state to matter, you have to find out how the big ones go first.

BLITZER: John King is going to be spending a lot of time with us with that map.

John, thanks very much.

When Governor Palin finally starts taking more questions from reporters, she'll surely get many of them, a lot of questions. So the McCain campaign is now very busy getting her ready.

Dana Bash is watching this part of the story.

The simple question, Dana, who's helping her?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's interesting, Wolf. Almost immediately after Palin was picked, a team of advisors was pulled into the campaign to help her -- to guide her, to prep her, to brief her. And no surprise, Steve Schmidt, who is now effectively running the campaign, made some "Your country needs you" calls from some of his old friends from his time in the Bush White House and also from past campaigns.

So, foreign policy experts like Steve Beegen (ph) -- he worked in the Bush National Security Council -- and Mark Wallace, who is deputy ambassador to the U.N., also for President Bush, they've been traveling with Palin, they're with her right now in Alaska, helping prep her on issues relating to national security. And McCain's domestic advisor, Doug Holtz-Eakin, he's been working with Palin on economic issues.

Overall, prep and counsel is coming big time from Nicolle Wallace, the president's former communications director. And another former Bush aide, Tucker Eskew, he's been traveling pretty much full time now with Palin, and is again with her right now in Alaska.

BLITZER: So what are you hearing? How are all the preparations coming along, Dana?

BASH: Well, you know, over the past week, Palin, has been busy on the campaign trail with McCain, but she really has stuck to a script that has changed only slightly here and there, and that's allowed her to focus on tutorials with those traveling press aides between campaign stops on planes, on the buses and of course in hotels. And I'm told she's been using index cards with bullet points on any given topic. That's her preferred method of studying.

And, you know, obviously she's got a lot of work to do to prepare for interviews, for her debate next month. And Palin not only has to dig into these dense and nuanced policy issues -- she hasn't dealt with much as a governor of Alaska -- but she has to learn John McCain's very long record and stance on issues, his position on everything from the economy to health care to Mideast policy. She's got to know McCain's record not only to defend and promote it, but also she and the aides around her have to figure out how she's different from him, because that's going to be part of the questioning that's going to go to her.

BLITZER: My head is just spinning just thinking what she's going through cramming for all of this.

Dana, thanks very much.

As Election Day gets closer and closer, some Democrats wonder if Barack Obama is making the most of a powerful force; namely, Bill and Hillary Clinton. I'll ask Clinton insider and Democratic strategist Paul Begala for his take.

And a monster hurricane aims its eye on Texas. But this will be felt beyond that state. This is a huge, huge storm, and the effort to evacuate is under way right now.

There's a new forecast coming out shortly. We'll tell you what's going on, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: They had lunch together today and they plan to campaign together in Florida. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton seem to be putting their past grudges behind them. But is Obama using Bill and Hillary Clinton effectively out on the campaign trail?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, our Democratic strategist, Paul Begala. He's a CNN contributor, as all of our viewers know. He's also the author of a brand-new book just out today called "Third Term: Why George W. Bush Loves John McCain."

Paul, we'll talk about the book in a moment. Let's talk about the news though today.

Barack Obama sitting down for lunch with your former boss, Bill Clinton. There's some criticism of Barack Obama, he's not using Bill Clinton, or Hillary Clinton, for that matter, enough to try to get himself elected.

What do you think?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Senator Obama gave President Clinton and Senator Clinton both primetime speeches in Denver. I think they used them well to boost the Obama campaign. And today, you know, I got to tell you, it's a very big thing, that Senator Obama is willing to go to Harlem, go to the president's office, pay respect like that.

That means a lot. You know, I'm kind of old school. And here's the new leader of my party going to the legendary leader of my party.

It's kind of like -- I know you're a basketball fan -- when the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship. Kevin Garnett sought Bill Russell on the floor and gave him a big hug to show his respect. And they posed on the cover of "Sports Illustrated," each with...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because as you know, Al Gore was criticized for not using Bill Clinton enough in 2000, and there's some suggesting it could have cost him the election.

What do you think should be an appropriate role for Bill Clinton between now and November 4th? BEGALA: I think you'll see the Obama campaign getting him out there, hitting the -- he is beloved by Democrats, but also by all of those Clinton Republicans, if you will. We used to call them soccer moms. I guess we're calling them Wal-Mart moms now.

The folks who made him the president twice were not the core Democratic votes, but swing Republicans in these swing states. I suspect you'll see a lot of Bill Clinton out on the campaign trail, and I bet you that's what they talk about.

BLITZER: But will it be a lot or just a few token appearances in order to show that they're basically OK with each other right now? Because as you know, when his wife was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was out every single day, going out in West Virginia, all sorts of places, two or three events a day. I suspect we're not going to see that kind of activity.

BEGALA: Well, he's no longer the spouse of the candidate. He's not going to campaign as hard as Michelle Obama, of course. He's got his foundation to run and he's returning to the life that he loves before his wife started running for office. But yes, I think you'll see lim out an awful lot. I don't think you'll have the kind of problem that many analysts saw of 2000.

BLITZER: And you think they buried the hatchet? Are they OK?

BEGALA: Oh yes. Oh yes.

Look, you know, Bill Clinton really -- I know this personally. OK? I generally don't talk about my private conversations, but it has bothered him no end to watch what he believes is the slow unwinding of so much of what he worked for as president occurring under Bush. He believes that will continue under McCain, and he tells his friends that.

He is strongly for Barack Obama because he believes in all the things that Barack believes in. And I think he's awfully impressed with Barack's talent, too. I think you saw that today in that meeting.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the new book, "Third Term," which you clearly have a point of view. You believe that if John McCain is elected president, he would effectively be a third Bush term.

In our recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll -- I don't know if you saw this, Paul, but we asked, "Would McCain policies be the same as Bush or different than Bush?" Fifty percent of the registered voters said they would be the same as Bush, 48 percent said they would be different than Bush.

You're among the 50 percent who think it would be the same as Bush. But they've had their problems over the years, Bush and McCain, as you know.

BEGALA: They have. And I actually did a little reporting. I'm not a real reporter like you, but I talked to some people who were involved in the rapprochement between McCain and Bush.

And many of them told me -- and I quote them in the book -- one of the reasons they fought so bitterly is because they're so very alike. I do think they share the very same policy goals just like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama do.

They had their spat when they ran against each other, but, you know, seven and a half years McCain has been there 91 percent of the time for Bush. That other nine percent he's already flip-flopped on. Right? Most importantly, the Bush economic plan which McCain voted against but now says he wants to make permanent.

So there's just -- this is not, by the way, a personal attack. It's not even an attack in the sense that if you like Bush, you'll love McCain. But if you're looking for change, you're just not going to get it out of McCain. I think the record bears that out.

BLITZER: The whole notion though that he was very critical of Rumsfeld, even Cheney in terms of the conduct of the war in Iraq, and effectively, at least White House officials -- you heard Ari Fleischer say it last night on "LARRY KING LIVE" -- the White House aides saw McCain as a real thorn in the side of the president.

BEGALA: Yes. You know, a lot of that is myth.

And I cite it in the book, and there are over 800 footnotes, so people can go look it up for themselves. And I had a dozen researchers work on this. So it's not just my opinions. It's the reality.

Again and again, when you go back to the real clips -- and we can do this -- John McCain said that Rumsfeld was doing a good job, that he was a good man. McCain refused to call for Rumsfeld's resignation even though most Democrats and even many Republicans were doing it. So the myth that somehow McCain was a thorn in Bush's side is just not true. He was actually Bush on steroids where the war was concerned.

BLITZER: Why do you think so many Americans see McCain very differently than they see Bush? Because if they saw it like you did, there would be no contest this time, given President Bush's unpopularity and also the fact that 80 percent of the American people think the country is moving in the wrong track right now, as opposed to the right track.

BEGALA: Well, I think the McCain persona has three elements -- one part very real, which is war hero, absolutely real. The more research you do, the more admiring you become of this man's service and suffering and sacrifice.

But the other two parts, maverick and reformer, are just myth. It's a well-cultivated, well-perpetuated myth, but it's a myth nonetheless. If you actually look at the issues, whether it's the economy, health care, taxes, trade, immigration, foreign policy, he's exactly the same as Bush. Now, again, if you liked Bush, if you're part of the 27 or 30 percent who liked Bush, you'll love McCain, but if you want change, you're just not going to get it from him. BLITZER: The book is entitled "Third Term: Why George W. Bush Loves John McCain." The author, Paul Begala. Paul, thanks for joining us.

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: In our "Strategy Session" with Donna Brazile and John Feehery, Barack Obama is focusing his attention on Sarah Palin. So why is the top Democrat -- the top of the Democrat's ticket even talking about the Republican's vice presidential nominee? A subject of debate right now.

And awaiting Ike. Hundreds of thousands fleeing the coastline of Texas. We'll get a live report from the potential hurricane zone.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session." Our Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, Republican strategist, John Feehery, they are both here.

You just heard Paul Begala and his brand new book make the case, if you like Bush, you'll love McCain.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Listen, if you like your taxes low or you want to win a war, they agree. However, when I worked for the House Republicans, John McCain was a pain in the butt, and he was a pain in the butt to the president of the United States at the same time.

He is a maverick. He's a complete maverick. And for Paul Begala to say that, he's not really -- I don't know who he's talking with the Republicans, but he's not talking to the right people.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, there's a record out there. And Paul had excellent researchers. It's a great book. He was a royal pain for 10 percent of the time, but clearly if you want to return those record surpluses back to record surpluses, then support, clearly, Barack Obama.

BLITZER: Karl Rove wrote this in "The Wall Street Journal" today: "Of all the advantages Governor Sarah Palin has brought to the GOP ticket, the most important may be that she has gotten into Barack Obama's head. How else to explain Senator Obama's decision to go one- on-one against Sarah "Barracuda," captain of the Wasilla High School High State basketball champs." Is he right?

BRAZILE: No. Karl Rove should understand that what Governor Palin has done is attacking. And Karl understands the strategy of distracting people from the real issues. This is not a personality contest. Barack Obama's focused on John McCain, and he knows that John McCain equals four more years of George Bush.

FEEHERY: You know, the fact of the matter is, the more the Democrats attack Sarah Palin, the worse it is for the Democrats. She is motherhood, apple pie, Chevrolet, hot dogs. All that people love about America, Sarah Palin is it. And the more that the Democrats attack her, the more they...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But what if they attack her? What if they point out that she doesn't have much of a record on some of the substantive issues, the most important issues of the day? That's not attacking her. That's just raising questions.

FEEHERY: Well, but you see all these rumors coming out from the left wing blogs, you see all these things going from the media that turn out not to be true. The fact of the matter is, Sarah Palin has a good record of reform, and that's what people want. They want reforming of the government, and that's why she's good.

BRAZILE: Look, we can attack her record. She's been a public official. She's not a sleeping violet.

She is tough. She's tenacious. And I'm sure she can take a punch and give a punch. So this notion that we have to put a wall up against her and make her some symbol, we're not looking for a symbol. We're looking for leadership.

FEEHERY: No, you misunderstand what I'm saying. By attacking her though, they're missing who they should be going after, which is John McCain.

BRAZILE: They're attacking her record, and her record on even reform is questionable.

FEEHERY: I think she's got a good record on reform. And also, they're missing the point. They should be going after McCain, not Sarah Palin.

BRAZILE: Well, we are going after McCain, because McCain has a record just like George Bush. And once again, as Paul said in "Third Term," it's a bad ticket for America.

FEEHERY: I think these attacks really do backfire on the Democrats, and I think you see the crowds are getting bigger, she's becoming even a bigger star. People love her in America. And by attacking her, they're attacking the wrong target.

BLITZER: But they've only seen her for a couple weeks now, by and large. People in Alaska love her. She's got really high approval numbers there. But nationally they've seen her in a very scripted sense.

We're about to start seeing, we assume, some interviews with her, and then she's going to have a debate with Joe Biden. So we may see a little different side of her.

BRAZILE: And we need to see this record. We need someone to tell us what she's accomplished and whether or not she can bring about the change. We know she can talk, but can she deliver?

BLITZER: Guys, a lot more to talk about, but we don't have time right now.

Thanks for coming in.

BRAZILE: All right.

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

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