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THE SITUATION ROOM

Bill Richardson Flies to Cuba; White House Leaks Some Contents from President's Jobs Speech; How Middle Class Jobs Vanished; Fires in Texas Destroy Hundreds of Homes; Weapons Stockpiles Found Empty in Libya; GOP Kicks off Fall Debate Season; Dick Cheney: No Regrets on Iraq; Rudy Giuliani's Warning for Rick Perry

Aired September 7, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, we're getting new details about the rough draft of President Obama's big jobs speech. We're going to take you what we're learning about the plan he unveils tomorrow night and whether he has new some new ideas that will sound either bold or timid.

Also, Rick Perry's first test on the presidential debate stage. He got a taste -- has got a late ride into this race, but he's moving very quickly right now at the start of his presidential campaign. Tonight, he has something, of course, to prove.

Plus, one of America's biggest malls prepares to be the target, potentially, of a terror attack. It's a valuable lesson in being ready for the worst 10 years after 9/11. And get this -- it costs next to nothing.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: We'll get to all of that in just a moment.

But we're just learning here at CNN that the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, was scheduled to land just a little while ago in Havana, Cuba on a very important mission to try to win the release of an American, Alan Gross, 62 years old.

He's been a U.S. Government subcontractor.

He was arrested in Cuba in December of 2009, accused of subversive activity. He's been held there ever since.

We're getting a statement now from the State Department, from the State Department spokeswoman, courtesy of our own Elise Labott, our State Department producer. The State Department saying: "We are aware of Governor Richardson's trip to Cuba and have been in contact with him. While Governor Richardson is traveling as a private citizen," the statement says, we certainly support his efforts to obtain Alan Gross' release." We're also told that the Cuban government invited Governor Richardson to come with this specific mission in mind. We're told that he's expected to spent the next few days in Havana, working to find a way to release Alan Gross.

The U.S. Administration, the Obama administration has been trying very strongly over these past two-and-a-half years or so to improve U.S.-Cuban relations. But right now, the secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has made it clear there will be no improvement at all in U.S.-Cuban relations until Alan Gross has been freed.

He's sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba.

So we're staying on top of this story.

We'll get reaction from the Cuban government.

Much more coming up.

In the meantime, the headline -- Bill Richardson, who's done this on many occasions before, having gone to many countries to try to free Americans, he is -- was scheduled to land just a little while ago in Cuba, with the mission of trying to free Alan Gross.

We'll stay on top of this story for our viewers.

Meantime, on the eve of President Obama's big jobs speech, he has a draft proposal on the table right now. And we're learning some of the key points in it. I can't stress this enough, this is a make or break moment for millions of Americans who need work, who need a job, and for a president who wants to keep his own job.

Let's go right to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

She's working this story for us -- the speech will be delivered tomorrow night, Jessica, as, you know, before a joint session of Congress. It's critically important, obviously, for the president. But for millions of Americans who are unemployed or underemployed or have simply given up hope for ever finding a job.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And according to a Democratic source familiar with a draft of the plan, I am told that it will include a mix now, Wolf, of tax breaks for business, infrastructure spending, aid to the states and help for the chronically unemployed. Now, according to this working draft, the big ticket items in this plan include roughly $120 billion to extend that 2 percent payroll tax cut to employees, which is now in existence, but currently set to expire at the end of the year. There is now, in this working draft, roughly $50 billion to extend unemployment insurance. And also in the plan, talk of an additional tax incentive to encourage employers to hire the long-term unemployed.

I'm told there are tens of billions of dollars there to support highway infrastructure investment and around $30 billion to renovate dilapidated schools. You and I spoke about that yesterday. And roughly figure -- the total figure, roughly now, $300 billion, the working figure for this overall jobs package.

Now, Wolf, I'm told that there will be a number of programs in here to try and get businesses and states to encourage the hiring of the chronically unemployed. We're talking about seniors, veterans and low skilled workers. But as you said, this is a draft plan and a lot could change between now and tomorrow night.

BLITZER: A quick question, Jessica.

How is the president proposing -- do we know how he's proposing to pay for all of this?

YELLIN: Right. He's going to give us broad strokes of how he'll pay for it tomorrow night and then lay out a detailed plan either next week or shortly thereafter. One piece of that, I am told, will be to propose closing corporate tax loopholes. Another piece would be raising taxes on the wealthy down the line. And then another piece would be to propose some changes, even cuts, to certain entitlement programs, perhaps Medicare or Medicaid, those last -- that last bit something some Democrats have expressed to me they're deeply concerned about. But, of course, we know he's already put that on the table during those deficit talks, during the debt debate we -- we went through earlier this summer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica.

Thanks very much.

I want our viewers, by the way, to check out my blog at CNN.com/situationroom. I write about the stakes not only for the president and the Republicans, the politician, the stakes for the country right now in this presidential proposal that will be unveiled tomorrow night.

Let's talk about how this jobs crisis has grown and what it means for middle class workers throughout the country.

CNN's Tom Foreman is over at the data wall for us.

What's going on here -- Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you hit the nail on the head a minute ago when you talked about people being underemployed. All these politicians in the Republican debate and the president's speech are going to talk about jobs.

The question is, what kind of jobs are they talking about?

Almost seven million jobs were lost in the recession proper. But a job is not a job is not a job is not a job. Look at this. This is what was going on before the recession. The biggest growth was over $70,000 a year. Look at the jobs that increased there.

Down here in the lower wage, around $20,000 a year, that was growing, too. Middle wage, $35,000 and up, that wasn't growing much before the recession. And this is about half of the country.

Look what happened during the recession, because this is where the jobs were lost. We moved to those two years and the middle falls to the bottom -- massive losses here, not so much in the higher wages, not so much in the lower wages. This one fell way down. And since the recovery has been underway, very little progress in regaining that ground.

The lower wage earners have come up. That's where the jobs have been. So many of the jobs we've created since then have been these kind of jobs. And that's not enough to fuel this economy.

The higher wage, by the way, continues to lose jobs right now.

This is the focus then, Wolf.

The question is, how do you get the bulk of jobs moving in here for mid-wage earners, the middle class of this country?

For Republicans, for the president, that is the challenge, because if you don't get this number moving, you can't get really get the economy cranking, too -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, a good explanation.

Thank you.

When President Obama lays out his new jobs plan before a joint session of Congress tomorrow night, CNN, of course, will carry all of it live. Don't miss our special coverage. It begins right here in THE SITUATION ROOM at 6:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow.

The eight Republican presidential candidates are likely to come out swinging at the president's jobs plan tonight, only 24 hours before he formally unveils it. Their debate in California will be an important test for the newest member of that Republican presidential pack. We're talking about the Texas governor, Rick Perry.

Will his burst of early momentum continue after his first performance in a debate?

CNN's Jim Acosta is over at the debate site, the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Set the scene for us -- Jim.

What's going on?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is fitting that this debate is happening about an hour's drive outside of Hollywood. After a quick and relatively easy rise to the top of the GOP pack, it is now show time for Rick Perry.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: How are you?

(CROSSTALK) PERRY: It's good to see you.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Texas Governor Rick Perry just might find himself in the middle of a Wild West shootout at the GOP debate, with attacks coming from all sides. Just this morning, GOP strategist Karl Rove telegraphed one debt zinger, taking aim at Perry's controversial comments (AUDIO GAP).

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: All right. I want to apologize for that technical problem we're having over there.

I want to go back to Jim Acosta -- all right, Jim, let's just talk about what's going on. You heard the tech -- the technology, obviously, was not working.

Let's set the scene for our viewers. It's a huge, huge challenge tonight for the frontrunner, Rick Perry.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. He has galloped to the head of this field in relatively short order. You know, he just got into this race less than a month ago. And if you look at the latest polls, he's leading by double digits in almost every poll that has come out in this race in the last week or so.

And that has basically given all of the incentive to the rest of the rivals in this GOP field to go after Rick Perry. That is why, in the last couple of days, you've seen Ron Paul, a fellow Texan, come out with a TV ad -- an attack ad, really, going after Rick Perry, highlighting the fact that the Texas governor, back in 1988, before he was governor, was a Democrat and a loyal supporter of Al Gore, of all people, when he was running for president back then.

And Mitt Romney, as you know, Wolf, just last week, was giving a foreign policy speech in Rick Perry's home state of Texas, when he delivered that line about, we've -- we've got a mess that no career politician can get us out of, making a veiled reference to Rick Perry there.

So Rick Perry is going to be feeling the heat tonight.

And the person who might have the most at stake in this debate tonight, Wolf, is somebody that we -- we aren't spending a whole lot of time talking about these days, and that Michele Bachmann. She just won the Ames straw poll a couple of weeks ago out in Iowa. And all of a sudden, she has found the bulk of her Tea Party support race over to Rick Perry.

So, really, this is going to be all about Rick Perry tonight. We're going to see these contenders try their best to go after him. But at the same time, it is a question as to whether or not those candidates will have the opportunity to do so.

Keep in mind, there -- there are going to be almost 10 candidates on this stage right now. They're all going to et pretty much -- they're all going to be given pretty much equal treatment. So it's going to be difficult for them to focus all of their attacks on Rick Perry, because there's going to be a lot of fur flying in every direction -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume they're going to be attacking Mitt Romney, some of them, as well.

All right, we'll see.

We'll watch it together with you.

Jim Acosta on the scene for us in California.

And this important note. We'll be watching for any missteps from the Republican candidates tonight. We'll be listening very closely. They will have another chance Monday night. I'll be the moderator at that time. CNN will host the Republican presidential debate, along with the Tea Party Express, several Tea Party groups. We'll be in Tampa, Florida, Monday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

I'm looking forward to that debate.

Stand by. We'll talk more about Rick Perry and what he has to prove in tonight's Republican presidential debate.

Will his popularity matter?

And the list you don't want to be on -- it's the only way some evacuees in Texas can find out if their home has been burned to the ground by the wildfires.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack Cafferty for the "Cafferty File." Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, here we go again. President Obama wants to spend another $300 billion we don't have. The president set to roll out his jobs plan tomorrow night in a speech to a joint session of Congress. But you need a magnifying glass to find out where the job creation is hidden.

Early reports suggest the plan will focus on new infrastructure spending. OK, might be some jobs created there. But an extension of unemployment benefits? How does that create jobs? Aid to local governments meant to prevent teacher layoffs -- that preserves existing jobs, doesn't create any jobs.

There may also be an extension of a payroll tax cut as well as tax breaks for businesses. Bottom line is a lot of this is just more government giveaways. And once again it's being advocated for no plan how to pay for it. Apparently the cost of the roughly $300 billion will be offset by, quote, "tax increases in later years," unquote. It would all be part of a long-term deficit reduction plan that would include spending and entitlement cuts as well as tax increases. Oh, yes, that's going to happen soon.

Translation -- more empty rhetoric designed to justify more deficit government spending. No one is making any tough decisions about cutting spending or raising taxes. The government continues to kick the national debt time bomb down the road, piling on more and more government spending for which there is no money.

Of course, it's unlikely that much of the president's plan will make it through Congress. Some Republicans have already dismissed it, saying it's a continuation of the failed 2009 stimulus plan.

Anyway, here's the question, how should the estimated $300 billion cost of President Obama's jobs plan be paid for? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, post a comment on my blog, or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM Facebook page. Now, if you go into the dealer and you get a new car, they expect you to pay for it.

BLITZER: They certainly do. They want cash or something. Thank you.

Let's get to the devastating wildfires right now in drought-stricken Texas. The fires are so large you can see them from space. Officials say even as firefighters get the upper hand on some of the largest fires, more are still popping up. The largest, which could be contained soon, has destroyed more than 450 homes, forced evacuations of at least 5,000 people, many of whom are checking lists to see if their homes survived.

And 2,000 firefighters are on call battling the flames. And now an elite search team is being called in to search for people who may be trapped. CNN's David Mattingly is joining us now. He's on the scene at one of the huge fires at Bastrop County near Austin, the state capital. What are you seeing there, David?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today firefighters are pounding the hot spots in this massive fire as fast as they possibly can, trying to take advantage of the weather break they got today. Very little wind today. Remember, it was the hype winds earlier in this week that fanned those flames and turned it into such a monster here. Well, today the winds have been relatively calm.

They've been dropping water out there on the ground, as well, trying to make sure the fire doesn't spread and that they're able to bring down some of the hot spots still continuing to burn there.

And they're racing against the clock because tomorrow the winds are supposed to pick up again here and they're looking at possibly 10 to 20-mile-an-hour winds. So if they don't bring the flames down today and cool down some of the hot spots today, they will continue to have problems the rest of this week.

In the meantime, homeowners today out of this county got their first taste of bad news. Confirmation lists went up today showing just a partial list of the hundreds of homes that have been hit by this fire, very powerful moments for some homeowners when they saw their numbers, their addresses up on these lists, but also powerful moments for people who saw their friends up there who did not see their own houses but are now dreading the worst. We talked to one woman who now looked at these lists, did not see her house and walked away in tears.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is devastating. So many people are displaced, have nothing, nothing. I forget how many homes, three or four of them are gone. They have nothing, they had no insurance. They're going to ask FEMA for help.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: And we've had 5,000 people evacuated in this area. They haven't been allowed back in their homes. That may happen soon. But right now authorities are pleading with people to stop being so impatient, to stop running the road blocks they have set up because they say there's still a very active fire fight going in those areas that they've been in for the last week. But they're hoping people will be able to remain patient and some may, they said they're working on plans to hopefully get some people back into their homes some time very soon, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there a significant federal assistance that's going on right now, David?

MATTINGLY: On the ground, we're seeing mostly state assets being deployed. The federal government is involved. FEMA is on the ground doing their damage assessment. They will have a relief center set up here soon if not already to assist the people who don't have insurance who might need some assistance in getting back on their feet.

But right now FEMA is actively involved, the federal government is making funds available. But on the ground you're seeing mostly volunteer fire departments, regular fire departments, state forestry officials directing a lot of what's going on here. Largely, the boots on the ground largely from Texas and from surrounding states, they've been getting assistance, as well. Wolf?

BLITZER: David Mattingly near Austin for us. Thanks very much. We'll stay in close touch with you.

One former member of the Republican presidential pack is suggesting his former rivals may have something in common with the bachelor and the Kardashians. Stand by for our strategy session.

And what's missing from empty crates in Libya could be very dangerous for the country and maybe even the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting more reaction now to the news we broke here at the top of the hour in THE SITUATION ROOM that the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson was scheduled to land just a while ago in Cuba to try to get the release of Alan Gross, the American management contractor who was arrested in Cuba in December, 2009, charged with all sorts of charges, convicted, sentenced to 15 years. The U.S. says it wants Alan Gross out.

We're now getting a statement from the Gross family. Let me read it to our viewers. "We are pleased that the Cuban government invited Governor Richardson to Havana. We welcome any dialogue that ultimately will result in Alan's release. We are grateful for his continued efforts. We hope that the governor and Cuban authorities are able to find common ground that will allow us to be reunited as a family before the Jewish holidays." By the way, they come up at the end of September.

He was there trying to help the Jewish community get better internet access. The Cuban government accused him of -- that was not authorized, and they arrested him, sentenced him to 15 years. The State Department says it hopes that Governor Richardson can succeed in getting his release. We'll have more on this story here in THE SITUATION ROOM when it comes up.

In the meantime, we're getting reaction to Bill Richardson's mission to Cuba. He's done this before in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, other countries. Let's see if he can come out with Alan Gross on this occasion.

Meanwhile, a new danger in Libya right now, a stash of powerful surface to air missiles. That stash is now missing. A CNN team and Human Rights Watch investigative reports of weapons looting across the country and found dozens of empty missile crates at a Tripoli warehouse. The missing Russian-made missiles can shoot down a plane up to 11,000 feet in the air. These are shoulder-fired missiles by and large.

In Syria, deadly new fighting meantime in the besieged city of Homs. Activists say government security forces storm through the city with attacks. They say at least 24 people were killed across Syria today. Most of them in the city of Homs.

Let's discuss what's going on in both Syria and Libya with Professor Fouad Ajami. He's the senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Professor, thanks as usual for coming in.

FOUAD AJAMI, SENIOR FELLOW, HOOVER INSTITUTION: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I interviewed the interim deputy prime minister of Libya the other day. And he was very confident that they had -- they knew where Gadhafi was, they're basically going to get him very soon. Is this bluffing? Can we take these people seriously who make these kinds of upbeat, confident statements? Is it sort of psychological warfare if you will?

AJAMI: I don't know, Wolf. I think you interviewed the best of this Libyan class. You interviewed a man who a professor of economics at the University of Washington. He left Seattle and went back to Libya to help his people. He knows the rules of the road. He knows you can't tell lies. He knows you have to have credibility with the people who come to you. I'm encouraged. If he says so, this is very, very credible source.

BLITZER: Because he also said that they want to if they capture Gadhafi and everybody thinks eventually they will unless he's managed to escape already, he says they want to try him in Libya and sentence him. But they don't rule out the possibility of then sending him to the international criminal court in the Netherlands for another trial on war crimes. Is that sort of realistic that scenario?

AJAMI: I think that's actually not a bad scenario. Because we know that the international criminal courts does not have a death penalty. We know if the Libyans were interested in vengeance, they would give Moammar Gadhafi summary justice. And if there's anyone in the world, anyone around who deserved summary justice and the wrath and retribution of his people it's Moammar Gadhafi.

Gadhafi is going to be shown much greater mercy than he showed tens of thousands of his own people and people caught in his way, Americans on airliners, visiting Lebanese, cleric who went to Libya and paid with his life for his visit. I don't think we need to worry about justice for Moammar Gadhafi.

BLITZER: And you make good points about the deputy prime minister. He's obviously a very intelligent man.

Let's move to Syria right now. And I want you to see this video Fouad. I want to warn our viewers it's difficult to watch but important to watch. It shows an unarmed man in Syria simply being killed by military thugs. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(GUNFIRE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Fouad, difficult to watch, obviously. It's on YouTube, amateur video. We can't confirm the authenticity. It looks very credible.

What do you make of what's going on? Because people all over Syria, all over the Middle East, the Arab world, they're going to watch this video.

AJAMI: Well, you know, Wolf, I think what we have to know is that Bashar al-Assad is going for broke. There are reports that he's summoned some of the top aides of his late father. He wants them back.

These are genuine killers, and I think the names will not be that important to people who don't know them, but, in fact, many, many aides of the old man, Assad, have been summoned. And I think Bashar al-Assad is going for broke.

Ramadan tested both the regime and the opposition. Ramadan came and went, and Bashar is determined to ride out the storm. He is inspired, to the extent we can use that word, by China and Tianmen Square, and by Iran in 2009, that you can actually -- if you kill enough people, you may prevail. That's a gamble he has. He has no other game.

BLITZER: Fouad Ajami, as usual, thanks very much for coming in. Appreciate it.

AJAMI: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to be speaking with former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. He's standing by. He's getting ready to watch that Republican presidential debate tonight out in California at the Reagan Library. We'll pick his brain when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go to Simi Valley, out in California right now, the Reagan Library. Robert Gibbs is joining us live. He's the former White House press secretary, currently an adviser to President Obama's reelection campaign.

Robert, thanks very much for coming in.

I know you're there to watch like a lot of us, want to watch that Republican presidential debate. Eight Republicans will be on the stage.

Which one of those Republicans, and be honest, scares you the most?

ROBERT GIBBS, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, look, Wolf, we're obviously in challenging economic times. And I think we're in for a very close election regardless of who the Republican nominee is going to be.

It'll be interesting tonight to hear the visions of where they want to take this country, because I think that's what this election is going to be about. Are you willing to put your country first and your party second to make this economy work again and to improve this country? And I'll be interested to see if any Republican can get over that bar tonight.

BLITZER: Right now, the two front-runners are Romney and Perry. Just put your analyst hat on for a second. What do they respectively bring to the table as a potential Republican nominee?

GIBBS: Well, look, obviously, each has been on the national scene for a bit. Obviously, Perry's come on more recently. But look, I think if you're Governor Romney, you've been involved in a very play-it-safe campaign up until this point, hoping that the music will stop and somebody will hand you the nomination.

That's not usually how it works, and I think they've been surprised by this. And it'll be interesting to watch those two campaigns interact with each other and those two candidates interact with each other tonight.

BLITZER: The president's got a big speech before a joint session of Congress tomorrow night, as you well know. I keep blogging that this is one of those make-or-break moments, at least potentially, for the president. He's got to show the American people.

He just can't deliver a good speech. He's got to back it up with action that will create jobs for the millions who are unemployed, millions more who are underemployed, and millions more of just giving up any hope of finding a job.

Does he have that plan ready?

GIBBS: Wolf, he's got that plan, and I think the test that you just laid out is the test that the president is anxious to have, anxious to meet, and will surpass tomorrow. But you know, Wolf, the president can't do any of this by himself, and Congress is going to have to decide that, on issues that they agree the president on, and they have agreed with the president on in the past, again, they're willing to put some of their party allegiance and their ideological allegiance aside to do what is best for this country and get Americans back to work.

That's going to be the real test of whether the next not just speech tomorrow, but the next several months are successful for the American people. This isn't about politics and it isn't about one speech. It's about whether a country can come together and whether Congress can put aside playing games and work with the president to put people back to work. That's going to be the test.

BLITZER: Is this plan he's going to put on the table, as far as you know -- I don't know if you're up to speed, you're no longer in the White House. Is it going to be what they say is revenue-neutral? In other words, any spending will be offset by cuts or revenue enhancements, if you will?

GIBBS: Yes, the president is going to fully pay for this plan. And he's going to lay that out tomorrow. And that's what's so important in this.

There shouldn't be a lot of debate, because the things that are going to be in this plan are things that Republicans will have supported in the past. And the question is, again, whether or not they remember that past support and can continue that support now.

I think the president will put together and lay in front of the American people and Congress a very detailed plan about how to get this economy moving again. And I think the American people want to see that Congress is ready to stop playing games and start putting people back to work.

BLITZER: One final question quickly before I let you go, Robert. In the past, when the Republicans cut taxes, they never paid for those tax cuts. Now the president wants a continuation of about $1,000 in payroll tax cuts for the middle class. Now some Republicans say that has to be offset by other spending cuts. What do you make of that?

GIBBS: Well, Wolf, I think it's emblematic of where we are right now, that Congress is happy to not pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, Wall Street hedge fund managers, and oil companies. But when it comes to putting money back in the pockets of those that are struggling in the middle class, they don't want to do it.

And, you know, Wolf, that's not how we're going to get this economy moving again. We are not a tax cut for a millionaire or a billionaire away from getting this economy moving again. We need to put money back in people's pockets that are going to spend money in this economy. That's middle class Americans, and I think it's a defining fight and a defining value for the next year.

BLITZER: Robert Gibbs, he's not afraid to be in "enemy territory" tonight at that Republican presidential debate.

We'll see you back here in Washington, Robert. Thanks very much.

GIBBS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: If Rick Perry thinks he's heading into this first debate with an advantage, wait until you hear some of the words of warning from a former Republican presidential candidate.

Plus, Dick Cheney tells me that the Bush administration made exactly the right decisions in Iraq. We're going to go to Baghdad for a reality check with our own Arwa Damon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Discussions are under way right now inside the Obama administration about possibly keeping 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beginning next year. The United States has agreed to withdrawal all U.S. military forces by the end of this year.

I asked the former vice president, Dick Cheney, for his take on the future of Iraq after a war that he championed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the Iraqis will, in fact, be somebody we can work with on a regular basis, that they will have a rudimentary democracy, if you will, and I think it'll be a success. We'll have to see.

BLITZER: But (INAUDIBLE) Bashar al-Assad, what goes through your mind?

CHENEY: Well, you know, I think Bashar al-Assad is not long for this world either. It looks to me like he's on his way out because of the unrest that's been occasioned by his own people inside Syria.

He's one of the least popular leaders in that part of the world. It's the Middle East, and stuff happens in the Middle East. You know it, you've covered it for years. But you cannot -- I don't think you can make a case that the world would be better off today if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

BLITZER: So no regrets about Iraq?

CHENEY: I think we made exactly the right decisions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in CNN's Arwa Damon. She's back in Baghdad for us right now.

Arwa, you've been there going back to before the war in 2003. You've been there for years now on and off, traveling around the region, as well. When he says that the Bush administration made all the right decisions, what do you think? What's your reaction there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think and I know that a lot of Iraqis that we have spoken to about America's attitude and about that very exact kind of terminology would point to it as being yet another example of America's arrogance and its complete and total lack of connection with anything to do with the Middle East, especially with Iraq.

This was not a war that Iraqis had any choice or any say in. The U.S. came barreling in on its tanks, deposed a dictator, yes. But at the same time, had Iraqis been given the chance, they most certainly would have wanted to do this on their own.

The U.S. then set out making a series of deplorable mistakes, like disbanding the Iraqi army, like disbanding the Ba'ath Party, effectively setting up the Sunni insurgency. They felt (ph) the secure borders allowing a flow of arms to come in from Syria and Iran.

They laid out the groundwork for an organization like al Qaeda to actually establish itself here. And then, of course, there were the years of the sectarian bloodletting that took place.

This was not a price that Iraqis were at any point in time asked if they were willing to pay. And now, by and large, because America is coming very close to withdrawing all of its troops, it could very possibly withdraw them all by the end of the year if some sort of an agreement is not drafted, it's effectively a mess that the Iraqis themselves have to clean up, one that was borne out of entirely unnatural circumstances.

BLITZER: And you and I in the past have discussed how Iran, the partner, the neighbor of Iraq, could emerge as a big strategic winner out of all of this, a notion that the vice president, in my interview with him, totally disputed.

Let's talk a little bit about the Arab Spring. I sometimes wonder, Arwa, if Saddam Hussein had been in power, how would the Arab Spring affected his rule, his dictatorship over Iraq? What are Iraqis saying to you about that? DAMON: Yes, Wolf, we put that question to a number of Iraqis, and there were really a variety of answers. Some of them believed, quite simply, because of the grip that Saddam had on the country, the fact that there were his people, his spies implanted in just about every single street. Also, remember that under Saddam, there was no free access to the Internet. Many sites were blocked. There was also no satellite television.

The country was shut off from the rest of the world. Some people believe that it would have been incredibly difficult.

But, yet, others will point to the fact that Iraqis already tried to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They in 1991, and they wonder where the international community was back then, because Saddam, following the 1991 uprising, ended up gassing the Kurds and brutally slaughtering the Shias.

But many of them, across the board, really feel pain, to a certain degree, when they see what's happening across the Arab world, because they were never given a chance, Wolf, to do this on their own.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon, back in Baghdad for us.

We'll stay in very close touch with you. Be careful over there in Baghdad, Arwa. Thank you.

Rudy Giuliani has a warning for Republican presidential contender Rick Perry about being the front-runner. We're going to talk about that in our "Strategy Session" when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Let's get right to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us right now, the Democratic strategist, the principal over at the Raben Group here in Washington, Jamal Simmons, and the former White House speechwriter for President Bush, now at FrumForum.com, our contributor to CNN.com, David Frum.

A lot of "dot-coms" there.

Thanks, guys, very much.

Rick Perry, right now, according to all the national polls, clearly the Republican front-runner, but Rudy Giuliani, who has got some personal experience being a front-runner, had this advice.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At this point four years ago, I was the nominee and I was going to run against Hillary Clinton. So you see how accurate those things are.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: He makes the point -- and it's a valid point -- David, that these national polls, forget about it. The only thing important is Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida. That's where the polling counts, not these national polls, because he was in all the national polls. He was by far the front-runner.

DAVID FRUM, CNN.COM CONTRIBUTOR: Right. And these polls also tend to measure things that are yearnings rather than emotions or feelings.

BLITZER: Or name recognition, for that matter.

FRUM: Right. So Republicans know Mitt Romney pretty well, they know his strengths and weaknesses. Not all of them are sold on him. So, if the question is, would you like Mitt Romney or somebody else behind door number two who's really great? A lot of people say maybe the guy behind door number two is really great, tell me about him.

Well, tonight, those Republicans are going to begin the process of discovering this other person. They may not find he is so great when they look closer at him.

BLITZER: And you remember four years ago, when Hillary Clinton was way ahead of Barack Obama, who was barely known in a lot of these national polls.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And, you know, that was also true in the state polls. I mean, all these polls this early are really pretty early.

Barack Obama didn't even start his assent until after -- I think it was October or so, at the Iowa State Dinner, when he started to climb up, and he still wasn't there in some of the states that came after that. We can even remember back to 2003 and 2004, where Howard Dean was the next president of the United States, or Wesley Clark, or one of these other guys.

So we have to take all of these things with a grain of salt.

BLITZER: In these debates, these Republican debates -- and I'm going to be moderating one Monday in Tampa -- take Rick Perry, the front- runner. When he gets slapped by the others, does he stay above the fray and look presidential, or does he slap right back?

FRUM: Front-runners, it's very rarely a good idea to slap back unless you can do it in about three words and with a smile. If you have to really fight, you look like anybody else. And Mitt Romney has effectively used that strategy.

The other question for Rick Perry is, what happens when Mitt Romney unloads facts and figures on him? Mitt Romney has just released a very detailed plan that hearkens back to 1992, Bill Clinton's putting people first plan, very detailed, thorough, very economically credible, forward by a leading economist. Can Rick Perry cope with that at a time of such economic --

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Hundreds of specific proposals that Mitt Romney put in that package.

SIMMONS: There are lots of proposals in there. A lot of stuff for people, for a lot of researchers to dig through. But also things for voter who want to pick a candidate to dig on also.

I find Mitt Romney to be sort of like a Wally Cleaver type character, his personality. But I've got to tell you, as a campaign, he is probably running probably the most disciplined Republican campaign out there.

Every time you see them, they are right on message about the president and the economy being bad. That makes me a little bit nervous. I'm not sure he has the electric personality, but he certainly does have the discipline.

BLITZER: Did you see "The Colbert Report"? Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, he was a Republican presidential candidate until he dropped out. He finally began to show a little personality on that show. Let me play a little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Why did you drop out after Ames?

TIM PAWLENTY (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was out of money, and I came in third place behind Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. I think that's enough for any one person to endure.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He had a lot of good one-liners there. And I'm always intrigued after someone drops out or loses. All of a sudden, they're funny, they've got a great personality. Remember Bob Dole when he lost, going way back.

What do you make of this?

FRUM: Well, first, you have to be disciplined when you're running. Jokes are dangerous.

BLITZER: Because I am always concerned that these handlers over- handle these guys.

FRUM: But these jokes are dangerous. Self-depreciating jokes are even more dangerous.

A politician shouldn't be too funny. They have a lot of responsibility on them.

But what also happens is this -- Pawlenty was in a situation during the campaign when he was being told, don't be you. You are a moderate, environmentally-conscious governor of a blue state. Don't be that guy. We want you to be a Tea Party warrior.

BLITZER: Yes. That's always a mistake, to try to pretend you're someone else.

Jamal, you should always be Jamal, not be somebody else.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS: Absolutely. I worked for Al Gore in 2000. If Al Gore had the passion that he had on the environment later, if he had had that in 2000, it may have been a very different outcome in that election. He may have won without the controversy.

BLITZER: Yes. Let Jamal be Jamal. Let David be David. Let Wolf be Wolf. That's the way to do it.

FRUM: Well, anyway, you have no other choice.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Guys, ,thanks very much.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

FRUM: Thank you.

BLITZER: As President Obama prepared to unveil his new jobs plan tomorrow night, you're going to find out why his attempts to promote so-called green jobs have left him red-faced, at least so far.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack is joining us again with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question is: How should the estimated $300 billion cost to President Obama's jobs plan be paid for?

Noel writes from New Mexico, "The same way the greatest generation did it in 1945: with higher taxes. In 1945, the national debt was 125 percent of GDP. The highest marginal tax rate, 90 percent, lowest 25 percent, both considerably higher than they are now. But they sent a million or more returning GIs to college, paid off the war debt, and started the interstate highway system and the space program."

"Unfortunately, we're not the greatest generation. Not even close."

L. writes from Maryland, "How about ending the Bush tax cuts? How about taxing corporations that outsource jobs and profits? How about closing all the loopholes and subsidies that benefit the Wall Street fat cats?"

"How about closing a lot of the unnecessary overseas military bases? How about telling Iraq and Afghanistan it's time to man up? How about cutting congressional pay to what they are worth?"

Vlad from Boston says, "There's only so much the government can do. Increasing government spending in a tough time like this in order to create jobs is what must be done. It's textbook economics."

M. writes from Florida, "We seem to be doing just fine with unemployment. No different than paying kids to go to school or paying Exxon to look for oil. Farmers get paid not to plant or collect on dead crops. Bankers get money for nothing. And we get checks for free, or however the song goes."

"Let the good times roll, I say. Quit complaining, Jack."

F. writes, "Refresh my memory. How many trillions have we spent fighting trumped-up wars in the Middle East? There is your $300 billion several times over."

Tammi on Facebook, "It's one more pea on the plate for the super committee. They haven't started working on the peas they left on the plate a month ago."

If you want to read more on this, you can go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thanks very much.