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THE SITUATION ROOM

Dan Pfeifer Interview; Deadly Crash; Dramatic Swings in Republican Presidential Race; Man Arrested for Spying on Syrian- Americans for Syrian Regime; IndyCar Driver Dan Wheldon Dies in Racing Accident; Critics Slam Border Fence "Joke"; Where Are Protests Destined to End?

Aired October 17, 2011 - 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: A volatile race with huge swings at the top. New poll numbers just out paint a dramatic picture of the Republican race for the White House one day before the candidates face off in the CNN Western Republican debate.

And the debate looms under a cloud of controversy. A remark by top candidate Herman Cain that outraged many Latinos, a lot of other folks, a remark he now is insisting was simply a joke.

And the fiery crash that killed champion IndyCar car driver Dan Wheldon leaving racing fans in shock and grief.

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

We are now in Las Vegas today where the Republican White House hopefuls will face off tomorrow night in the Western Republican presidential debate co-sponsored by CNN. It comes at a pivotal point in the Republican contest, with Herman Cain now near or at the top of the various polls.

But he sparked an uproar over the weekend with a controversial remark about immigration, a very, very sensitive issue here in Nevada.

CNN's Jim Acosta is taking us in-depth right now.

Jim, what is going on, on this issue? Because it's a big one here and a lot of other states as well.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Herman Cain acknowledged over the weekend that he has made these types of comments before when he was hosting his radio show in Atlanta. But what he is starting to find out that those remarks can bring in the viewers and the listeners but may not work so well on a presidential campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When I'm in charge of defense, we're going to have a fence.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Herman Cain insists these comments on illegal immigrants crossing the border did not cross the line. CAIN: It's going to be 20 feet high. It's going to have barbed wire on the top. It's going to be electrified. And there is going to be a sign on the other side that says, it will kill you. Warning. Mr. Cain, that's insensitive. No, it's insensitive for them to be killing our citizens, killing our border agents.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ACOSTA: The outspoken conservative businessman said on one of the Sunday talk shows he was only kidding.

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": It's a joke.

CAIN: It's a joke. That's a joke.

GREGORY: That's not a serious plan?

CAIN: That's not a serious plan. No, it's not.

GREGORY: You got a big laugh out of that, but that's not what you'd do?

(CROSSTALK)

CAIN: That's a joke. I have also said America needs to get a sense of humor.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: This is the education of Herman Cain. He is learning about being a minor league candidate and all of a sudden being at the top of the heap. There are things you can say when you're just trying to get attention that you just can't say when people are looking at you as a serious contender.

ACOSTA: Cain made the comments just a couple of days before meeting Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has become the Donald Trump of illegal immigration politics. Arpaio, who is getting calls and visits from nearly the entire GOP field, says Cain was right on message.

JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA, SHERIFF: Oh, I'm sure he was joking, but it probably means that he is taking it serious to do something at the border and stop the illegal immigration.

ACOSTA: But Latino Republicans worry that tough talk will backfire.

MARIO LOPEZ, HISPANIC LEADERSHIP FUND: This is the type of rhetoric that has turned off a lot of Latino voters in the past. I think that's a bit unfortunate from the Republican point of view. But the fact that he is trying to walk back his comments now I think is telling.

NARRATOR: Illegals sneaking across our border, putting Americans safety and jobs at risk.

ACOSTA: In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle outraged Hispanics with this attack ad, showing Latino actors portraying illegal immigrants. Angle's opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, went on to capture nearly 90 percent of the Latino vote.

But the latest CNN/ORC poll finds Cain's style is catching fire. He's neck and neck with front-runner Mitt Romney and has nearly traded places with Rick Perry, who is seen by some Tea Party activists as weak on illegal immigration. Cain is also a major worry for Romney. In poll after poll, it appears the former Massachusetts governor has peaked in his support among Republicans.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is a natural ceiling. And if you go back and look at the race last time, he ran into a natural ceiling.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: One of the big questions for tomorrow night's debate is whether or not any of Herman Cain's Republican challengers will challenge him on these comments. As it is in many cases, the race for the Republican nomination is very much a race to the right on the issue of illegal immigration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Jim, stand by.

Gloria Borger is here, our chief political analyst.

Our new poll shows this race still is very, very volatile for the Republican nomination.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure is. As Jim was just talking about in his piece, take a look at this poll and you will see how Romney remains pretty consistent, 26 percent, now 21 percent back in September.

And Cain and Perry have essentially flipped. And so what you are going to see is that you have got to see Perry tomorrow night really go on the offense. He's got to go on the offense against Cain. Michele Bachmann has got to go on the offense against Cain because he is taking their voters. By the way, he's quite vulnerable.

I mean, today Michele Bachmann came out and said that, you know, you shouldn't joke about immigration policy. She didn't disagree with the substance, by the way, but said that it is no joking matter. Here in the state of Nevada, immigration is no joking matter.

BLITZER: The poll also shows, Gloria, that most of these Republican potential voters out there, they are still on the fence. They haven't made up their minds.

BORGER: They have not made up their minds. Let's take a look at this. The question was, have you definitely made up your mind which candidate you will support? And might change mind, 67 percent, which shows you the volatility in the race. It also shows you that Republican voters are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney, right?

They haven't settled on Romney. ACOSTA: That's right. And, Wolf, we have seen this before. Remember, Michele Bachmann in Iowa, she peaked in the Republican field at that time. And she started to come down in the polls after some ill-advised comments.

And now we're seeing Herman Cain almost repeat that pattern to a tee. The question is whether or no his poll numbers will go down. A lot of Tea Party Republicans like this kind of white hot rhetoric on the issue of illegal immigration. It is an issue that Mitt Romney has touched on occasion. He went after Rick Perry on the issue of tuition breaks for the children of undocumented workers down in Texas.

It will be interesting, I think, to see whether or not any of the candidates sort of go after Herman Cain on this issue.

BORGER: You know, so far Herman Cain's campaign has been a book tour, at -- largely a book tour. And he's got to branch out. He has raised some more money but he's got to get more serious as a candidate, not spend time in Tennessee when he would be...

ACOSTA: Right. What was he doing there?

BORGER: Right. What was he doing there? He should be in New Hampshire.

BLITZER: Selling books, becoming better known. And he says he is running an unconventional campaign.

But Mitt Romney's got a problem when it comes to Herman Cain. And I want to you weigh in. Some of his supporters have said to me they want to be really careful, because if he is the nominee, they don't want to alienate those Tea Party supporters of Herman Cain, so there is a limit as to how far Mitt Romney for example can go in criticizing Herman Cain.

BORGER: Well, he is walking a really fine line. But unlike 2008 where Mitt Romney changed his positions on a bunch of issues, he has decided not to do that this time, to look forward. He is pretty tough on immigration policy.

Rick Perry, I would think, would be the one, if he can do it delicately, to take on Herman Cain on immigration, because he has been considered soft. And maybe he will say, you know what, building that fence, I know, I have been the governor of Texas, it is absolutely impossible.

BLITZER: They totally disagree though on in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants.

BORGER: Of course. Of course.

BLITZER: Hold your thought, because we have got a lot more to talk about over the next couple hours.

Guys, thanks very much. Don't forget, the candidates take the stage tomorrow right here in a state that reported the highest unemployment rate in the nation in August, more than 13 percent. We are talking about Nevada.

And its home foreclosure rankings also the highest in the United States. Those aren't just statistics for people who live here, including one cab driver who has seen firsthand how the economy has changed.

CNN's T.J. Holmes has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LANCE OLIVIA, TAXI DRIVER: Living here, locals, we don't go up to the Strip. We don't bother with it.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What was your heyday as far as driving a cab here? You have been doing it nine years here. When was it just at the height where you just raking in cash?

OLIVIA: 2004, 2005, 2006.

HOLMES: When it's' good in Vegas, it's good.

OLIVIA: Oh, yes. It was so good that I moved out here with my daughter. I gave her a debt-free education on her bachelor's and her master's. I bought her a brand-new car, took a four-year loan out on it, paid it off in 19 months and plus paid my regular bills and still saved money. That's how good it was.

HOLMES: You did all that driving a cab here in...

OLIVIA: That's how good it was.

HOLMES: You think a lot of people outside of Las Vegas, and maybe even some people in Vegas, we have this impression that, oh, that's America's playground. People go out there and just blow money. Surely they have got to be awash in cash.

OLIVIA: Sixty to 65 percent of the job market is the Strip and local construction. The recession kicked in, the Strip got slow, they laid off thousands. These thousands couldn't find work. They started losing their homes. These people lose their homes, local construction starts slowing down. These people start losing their jobs. They start losing their homes.

Foreclosures have gotten so bad that it is now one in every seven homes in the state of Nevada.

HOLMES: You think people don't get it sometimes?

OLIVIA: Oh, they don't.

HOLMES: How bad you hurt?

OLIVIA: They don't. The Strip will be busy to them. We know it's not. Right? I use an example. When we had one New Year's Eve, I tell them, if you came here and you saw a quarter of a million people, would you think it was busy? They would say, yes, it was jampacked. I said, but the year, it before was 320,000. You are talking a 70,000 cut. I said, that's a lot.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: What a story. And there is a lot more here in Nevada as well. Don't forget tomorrow night right here in Las Vegas, the Western Republican presidential debate, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

The Occupy Wall Street protest movement, it is going global. Jack Cafferty is coming up next with "The Cafferty File."

Also, a closer look into the fiery crash that killed champion IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon.

Plus, Syrian spies in Washington allegedly working in the United States. Now one man has formally been charged.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, what began as just a few people walking aren't New York's Financial District complaining about the economy and corporate greed has now spread around the world.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement marks a month of protests, there are no signs of it slowing down. On the contrary, protesters have taken to the streets not only in a growing number of U.S. cities, but in Europe and Asia as well, cities like London, Rome, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Sydney, Hong Kong, Taipei, and even Tokyo. These protests have been mostly peaceful, except for Rome, where they did set off some riots.

Organizers say the protests will be held in 950 cities in 82 countries. Hey, that sounds like the beginnings of, what, maybe like a revolution.

Here in the U.S., police arrested hundreds of protesters over this last weekend, including in New York, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, Arizona, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

American protesters say they're angry that banks keep making hefty profits after the 2008 bailouts, while ordinary Americans suffer under a struggling economy and 9 percent unemployment. They have a point.

They say they take their inspiration from the Arab spring movement that led to the toppling of regimes across Africa and the Middle East.

Critics accuse the protesters of not having clear goals. And they question how long the movement can keep going. But they have lasted for a month so far, no signs of slowing down and the people who laughed at them don't look so smart right now, do they? Plus, politicians seem to be taking note that these protests aren't going away as well. President Obama voicing support For the demonstrators and Republican house majority leader Eric Cantor who previously compared them to angry mobs, now says that his party agrees that there's too much income disparity in the United States. Anyway, here is the question. Where are the "Occupy Wall Street" protests destined to end, do you think? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, post a comment on my blog, or go to our post on the "Situation Room"'s Facebook page. Wolf-

BLITZER: Great question Jack. Thank you. More on that story coming up as well.

Meanwhile, a rescue at the bottom of the world. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that. Some of the other top stories in the "Situation Room" right now. Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there Wolf. Well an American researcher is elated to have been air lifted out of the South Pole today. Weeks after suffering an apparent stroke. She arrived in New Zealand where she will be evaluated and treated. Weather prevented planes from landing after she fell ill in August at a research station in the Antarctic. She had been able to do some rehab before her rescue.

And Iran is demanding counselor access to the suspect in an alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Manssor Arbabsiar is a naturalized U.S. citizen who holds both U.S. and Iranian passports. He was arrested last week on suspicion of conspiring with a member of Iran's revolutionary guard, to hire hitmen from a Mexican drug cartel, to kill the ambassador.

And Apple says it has set a sales record for the iPhone 4s, selling more than 4 million smart phones since its launch just three days ago. This year's iPhone debuted in The United States and six other countries. The new phone, it looks the same as the iPhone 4 but it has faster processor a better camera. Improved antenna, and new voice command software.

And it took, a man more than eight hours to finish a Toronto marathon on Sunday. But that was a record. You see him there. That is because he is 100 years old. And by finishing the 26.2 mile course, he became the undisputed oldest runner to finish a marathon. He was born in rural India back in 1911. And he actually didn't start running marathons until he was 89 years old. This was the eighth one that he has run. Congratulations to him, isn't that amazing? A hundred years old and look at him go.

BLITZER: That is -- wow, what is amazing. God bless him. I hope he runs many, many more marathons. Good for him. Thanks very ,much Lisa.

Coming up, a lot more news including some Syrian spies allegedly working right here in the United States. And now one man is being charged.

And the fiery crash that killed a racing champion. We are taking a closer look at the track and what may have caused his death right here in Las Vegas.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama is taking his push for the stalled jobs bill on the road, kicking off a three-day bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia. Two states that will be critical in his bid for re- election. The 2012 vote is clearly on the minds of the presidents supporters and Republican critics say, it looks more like a campaign swing. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I appreciate -- I appreciate the four more years. But right now, I'm thinking about the next 13 months. Because, yes we've got an election coming up, but that election is a long ways away and a lot of folks can't wait.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: Is that appropriate on the taxpayer's dime since it is clearly campaigning. And I must say Again, I've never seen an uglier bus than the Canadian one. He is traveling around on a Canadian bus touting American Jobs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right let's talk about this. The President's bus, the jobs situation, a lot more. The White House communications Director Dan Pfeifer is joining us from the White House. All right Dan, is the president's bus trip a campaign trip or an official presidential trip.

DAN PFEIFER, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: It is exactly what the president said it is, which is an opportunity to go out and talk to American people about the need to do something about creating jobs and growing the economy now. As he said in the clip you played, we have an election in 13 months, and then will be a time to have a big debate about what direction we want to take this country. But the American people can't wait for that election. So we have to act now.

BLITZER: What about McCains' and others complaints he is traveling around talking about American jobs, on a Canadian made bus.

PFEIFER: I think that's a lot of politics from Senator McCain. As we talked about this before, the secret service acquired this bus through an American company. It is made by the same company that made Senator McCain's very famous for Straight Talk Express.

BLITZER: That's interesting. I didn't know that. Let's move on to talk about our New CNN/ORC poll. These numbers probably will be very worrysome to you and a lot of other Democrats. We asked registered voters across the country, Democrats, Republicans, independents, are you extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in the next election. Republicans, 64 percent said they are very or extremely enthusiastic. Only 43% of Democrats were extremely or very enthusiastic. Similar numbers by the way in 2010 when the Republicans took the majority in the house in mid term elections. The exact opposite in 2006 in 2008 when Democrats were a lot more enthusiastic. How worried are you about this lack of enthusiasm at least right now among Democrats.

PFEIFER: Not worried at all, Wolf. I think there is no question Republicans are actually in the middle of a campaign right now. So their voters are going to be more engaged than ours necessarily will be. And I am completely confident that come election day, when we talk About the differences between this president and which ever one of these Republicans is nominated, Democrats will be as enthusiastic. And I believe more enthusiastic than the Republicans.

as enthusiastic and I Believe more than the Republicans.

BLITZER: Here is another number in our new CNN/ORC poll, that may be worrisome to you and other Democrats. We asked, do you believe President Obama's policies will fail or succeed. 59 percent of all voters said they will fail. Now compare that to in 2010 when 47 percent thought the President's policies would fail and only 32 percent back in 2009. I write about this on my blog today. Those trends you see right there, not very encouraging if the president wants to get re-elected. How do you reverse that?

PFEIFER: Well I think you reverse it by going out and talking about -- doing what president is doing today and all this week. We're going out and talking about the American jobs act. A specific plan to create jobs and grow the Economy now. It's the only plan out there. Republicans have a plan, the same economists look at our plan, looked at their plan and say, it won't create jobs. So we're going to go out there. We're going to make the case. We have a specific plan. And look the American people understand, we didn't get into this mess overnight and we're not going to get out of it overnight. So it's going to take some time. But what we know is, that this president wants to move this country in the right direction, and that all of the Republican candidates and the Republicans leaders in the house and the senate want to go back to the same polices that got us into this mess to begin with. Allowing Wall Street to write its own rules, tax cuts for wealthiest and the biggest corporations, while the middle class take a beating. We can't do that. And American people are with this president. And lots of polls out there show bi-partisan majorities agree with every element of the president's jobs act. Including many elements, a majority of Republican voters support the presidents plans here. So we are headed in the right direction.

BLITZER: Why do you think Herman Cain is surging among the Republican candidates now?

PFEIFER: Well, I think -- I don't pretend to be an expert in Republican primary politics, but I think that what he is -- he represents, I think a dissatisfaction with the front-runners and potentially Governor Romney. I don't whether he is the flavor of the week, the flavor of the month or the next nominee. I'll let the Republican party sort that out

BLITZER: But his tremendous increase, that puts to rest this notion that the Tea Party or at large numbers of conservative Republicans are racist. Does that put that notion to rest once and for all?

PFEIFER: Oh I've never suggested that. I don't think anyone in this White House has ever suggested that. I think it is a positive sign for this country that you have an African American Democratic president, and there is an American leader in the Republican primary. I think that shows all the progress is (ph) made. It's a very good thing.

BLITZER: You think it's possible that there could be two African Americans running for president running for president in the United States, when all the dust settles among the Republicans?

PFEIFER: I'll leave that to Republicans. But he's leading now, and he's getting stronger. So absolutely. Anything is possible. But one thing I learned in my experience working in the last Democratic primary is there is going to be a lot of twists and turns in between now and when that nomination is decided.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. All right Dan Pfeifer. Thanks very much. Dan Pfeifer is the communications director over at the White House.

A record number of Americans now believe Obama's policies as we just reported, will fail. That's just one of those disturbing trends right now. Stand by. Much more of our brand new poll coming up in our "Strategy Session" as well. We'll be right back.

(COMMERICAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Las Vegas. Here are stories we are working on for the next hour. Ron Paul announces a plan to cut federal spending and puts almost a quarter million jobs on the chopping block. We'll tell you what's going on. Ron Paul standing by to join us live.

President Obama is on a bus tour pushing his jobs plan. We'll got live to North Carolina when he takes the stage.

And tired of being surprised by your cell phone bill? We have details of a new alert system going into effect today. Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But first, protests of a different kind against the regime of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Syrians-Americans believe they are being watched by spies from the Assad regime inside the United States. Now one man has been charged. CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us. Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the proceedings are still going on at the courthouse behind me for one spy and these proceedings may continue tomorrow. Prosecutors say he is part of an effort by the Syrian regime to intimidate dissidents from thousands of miles away.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: They had their own Arab spring in the U.S., Syrians calling for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad thought when they protested in American it was simple free expression. What many of them didn't know is that Assad's regime had eyes on them, this man's eyes, according to U.S. officials, Mohamad Soueid, a naturalized American charged with conspiring to collect video and audio recordings of Syrian protestors in the U.S. Prosecutors say he spied on protesters, then handed that information to Assad's regime so they could intimidate relatives back home. Mohammad al Abdullah is part of a group suing of Syrian in the U.S. suing people they believe are spies for the regime.

(on camera) What do you hope authorities will do with this man?

MOHAMMAD AL ABDULLAH, SYRIAN DISSIDENT: I hope he has a fair trial. He gets his rights and defends himself. He's going to hire lawyers and there will be public hearings so we can hear what happens. And I hope this will put an end to practices by the Syrian government.

TODD (voice-over): contacted by CNN's, Syria's embassy in Washington denied getting any information from Mohamad Soueid, called the allegations absolutely baseless and totally unacceptable. But there are recent incidents that raised questions. Syrian musician Malik (ph) Shondeli (ph) claimed that after he played an anti-Assad song at a rally in Washington, his elderly parents were beaten up by thugs from the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My wife, they came up and start hitting her.

TODD: The government didn't respond to that allegation but in the past has blamed armed gangs for such attacks. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ted Kattouf says he is not surprised by the allegations that Assad's regime has spies in the U.S.

TED KATTOUF, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: They are fighting for their lives. This is the regime that believes they are riding a tiger. They are a majority group. They are of the Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and 80 percent of the population are Sunni, Arabs and most of the people detest the regime and want to done with.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Mohamad Soueid may have had help. Prosecutors say he tried to recruit others in the U.S. to help him spy on protestors. It's not immediately clear who those others are or how many of them there are. Soueid's attorney denies all the allegations. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian, you have heard some fascinating testimony in this detention hearing before and against the defendant. Share some of that with us.

TODD: Yes, Wolf. Testimony had to do with Mr. Soueid's relatives. The prosecution at one point said that Soueid scolded his own wife for allegedly using some sort of telephone number that belonged to the Syrian security services. They say they had evidence to do that to try to cover up what he was doing.

But on the other hand his attorneys called up his own cousin, who is a journalist in the United States, who says she works for right and The New York Times. She says she's against the regime, but she says he would never do anything like what he's accused of. So interesting testimony on both sides having to do with his relatives.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. You will stay on top of this trial for us? Thank you.

One witness described it by saying it was like a bomb that went off, and the video is difficult to watch. A fiery crash right here in Las Vegas leaves a race car driver dead. Who is he? What might have caused his death? Could it have been prevented? Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A tragic jaw-dropping crash here in Las Vegas kills popular two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. Racing is a dangerous business. But the drivers were questioning the safety of the track here in Las Vegas even before the green flag. It is not normally used for this type of racing. We will have more on that part of the story in a few minutes. But first CNN's Christine Romans has details on the fiery crash.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: On the last race of the year, Dan Wheldon's car sailing into the air, slamming into the catch fence, and disintegrating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, multiple cars involved.

ROMANS: A horrific 15-car wreck, video of the accident showing cars spinning out of control, bursting into flames, and shooting smoke and debris into the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cars in flames, wreckage, carnage -- terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They just crumpled and caught on fire. I mean, everybody gasped.

ROMANS: Racers got the news about two hours after the crash.

RANDY BERNARD, CEO, INDYCAR: IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from un-survivable injury. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.

ROMANS: The race was ended, but drivers, many in tears, returned to the track for a five-lap salute in his honor.

TONY KANAAN, INDYCAR DRIVER: I know this is a dangerous sport. I know we are exposed to that every day and in normal life as well. But, you know, you don't think about it. And today, we have to think about it. And we lost one of my best friends, one of my greatest teammates. If you ask anybody in this field, if we could choose a way to go, that is the way. I would have chosen it.

ROMANS: Dan Wheldon made his IndyCar debut back in 2002. He was a two-time and defending champion at the Indianapolis. Fans laid flowers and lit candles outside the iconic brickyard last night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dan Wheldon exemplified everything about this series and about why people continue to come to this place. This is the racing capitol of the world. This is why people come here.

ROMANS: This was Wheldon drinking the milk in victory lane back in May, winning with one of the most thrilling finishes ever in the Indy 500, taking the checkered flag when the leader crashed in the final lap. He joined "AMERICAN MORNING" just hours after that big win and talked about the pressure to stay sharp and fast.

DAN WHELDON, DECEASED INDYCAR DRIVER: It is intense around this racetrack. We are doing speeds in excess of 225 miles an hour. And with this race you never know what can happen. So it is about staying focused, and you really don't ever let off the power unless you have to. That's what I wanted to do yesterday and that's what I did.

ROMANS: Wheldon entered yesterday's race for a shot at $5 million purse, the biggest of his career. He was starting at the back of a crowded 34-car pack. Wheldon is survived by his wife, Suzie, his two- year-old son Sebastian, and his seven-month-old son Oliver. He was just 33 years old.

SVEN BEHM, WHELDON'S FATHER-IN-LAW: He wasn't just a great driver, but he was a great human being. And I just can't believe that he is no longer with us.

ROMANS: Christine Romans, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dan Wheldon is the third IndyCar driver to die since 2003. Drivers questioned this track's safety before the race. CNN's Chad Myers has been taking a closer look at the crash for us. Chad, what was it about this track here in Las Vegas that made this race so dangerous?

CHAD MYERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You had cars going 220 miles per hour. It's hard it fathom, honestly. I've looked at the video, and most video we have been showing all day is in slow motion. If you want to go take a look at a piece of video in real-time. These cars are traveling so fast, the crash was just -- I don't have another word for it other than horrific, cars going different directions all smashing into each other. There were so many cars, 34 cars, on a track that is significantly smaller than the Indy 500.

Here is the track in Las Vegas out in the desert, not that far from where you are, Wolf. The cars were coming down the straightaway. And they as they came through the turn, this is a D oval. They almost don't stop turning. Cars just turn around this track. It's almost a big circle. And as they came down from the front stretch into turn one there was a crash in front. People were checking up, which means slowing down.

Because of the banking on this race track, it is not like you are looking down the roadway and you can see a crash in front of you. When you have a bank turn like this and the turn is going this way, the crash is out of your view. The crash is way above you and even blocked by your helmet.

So as Dan Wheldon came up here and crashed and literally launched over Paul Tracy and a number of other cars into this catch fence and the barrier, it was a very strong and horrendous crash, different than a crash at Indy. Indy 500 is a much larger race track. This is 1.5 miles. Indy all the way around here, I have overlaid it now, 2.5 miles long. The cars come down the back straight, turn into three, four and go back again. They go around and around and around.

And then you have to slow down a little bit, although they may not lift off the gas, the sharp turns, and they all know to go into their single file, no two or three wide, where in Las Vegas they like to go in two or three wide because it is a wide course and very fast. And racecar drivers drive for fast. They just do.

And I want to show you something that we looked at, which is very telling of what happened to Dan and what happened to his car. Here is Dan's car after the crash. It was covered up bay little yellow tarp. That's the profile of the car when it was done.

The profile of a different car during the parade lap at the end for the memorial for Dan looks like this. See how much higher it is in the body. Here is the driver right here. There is a roll bar through here. Almost we call it a roll hoop. To go back to this other car, there is no roll hoop at all. But the top graphics of this, or the profile doesn't show any type of roll hoop at all.

So as the car came into the turn and flipped, hit basically topside first into the wall, into the catch fence. And for some reason, that roll hoop or roll bar failed, and it failed Dan fatally, so to speak. Wolf?

BLITZER: They are going to investigate and investigate and investigate, as they well should. Chad, thank you.

One of the drivers who was in that crash, Paul Tracy, he will join us live in our next hour. He has driven in the IndyCar series for 20 seasons, has a very dramatic story to share with all of our viewers about what happened here in Las Vegas yesterday. His take on what happened. His memories of Dan Wheldon, that is coming up at 5:15 p.m. eastern, about half hour or so from now.

Republican presidential contender Herman Cain calls for a border fence that's electrified. He says it is just a joke, but did he cross any line? Our strategy session, that's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain made some startling comments about the border fence with Mexico this weekend at a rally in Tennessee. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll tell what, when I'm in charge of the fence, we're going to have a fence. It's going to be 20 feet high. It's going to have barb wire on the top. It's going to be electrified.

And there's going to be a sign on other side that says, it'll kill you, warning. Mr. Cain, that's insensitive. No, it's insensitive for them to be killing our citizens, killing our border agents that's what's insensitive. And that mess has to stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But he backed off those comments less than 24 hours later. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You said it in an event in Tennessee that you would build an electrified fence on the border that could kill people if they try to cross illegally.

CAIN: That's a joke, David.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a joke.

CAIN: That's a joke.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not a serious plan.

CAIN: That's not a serious plan, no it's not. That's a joke. I've also said America needs to get a sense of humor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's talk about this with our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile and CNN contributor, the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in. What do you make for his explanation, which he says he was just joking, although at the time, if you look at the video, if you look at crowd reaction, didn't sound like it was a joke. People weren't laughing, they were applauding.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: You know, with Herman Cain, he is always joking. But was it something more? There was a little germ of truth in the joke? I think there was. I think this is part of the education of Herman Cain, Wolf.

There is a difference between being at the back of the pack as a candidate and all of a sudden you are a potential frontrunner. When people look at you as president and not just a minor league candidate, you have to watch what you say. Herman is learning that.

BLITZER: One thing to be a radio talk show host. It's another thing to be a presidential candidate. Do you buy, Donna, his explanation that he was simply joking? DONNA BRAZILE, NATIONALLY SYNDICATED COLUMNIST AND AUTHOR: No, I don't, Wolf, because as you know, in the Republican debates, we all hear ridiculous arguments about critical issues. We saw the audience laugh when one of the candidates talks about the uninsured.

We also saw of course, Wolf, one of the debates, mocking a gay soldier and laughing when there was discussion about the number of executions in Texas. This is a serious subject. Our immigration system is broken. That's why the president doubled the number of border patrols.

That's why last year we secured the borders even better. We had more people removed from the border. I think the president's approach is the right approach, which is a comprehensive approach to immigration reform in this country.

BLITZER: Is this just a gaff or is it going to be serious? It's going to blow over, what do you think?

CASTELLANOS: As a first time around the track here for Herman Cain, he is going to get the benefit of the doubt the first couple of times. Everybody knows he is kind of new to the scene. He is an interesting, an amusing and optimistic guy. So people I think are going to give him a break, but he can't keep doing this or he'll slide back down into the pack.

BLITZER: Donna, the fact that right now, according to the all of the polls, including ours, he's right at the top. An African-American, a black man, right at the top tier of the Republicans, among the conservatives, what do you think about that?

BRAZILE: Well, I think it's remarkable, but look, Wolf, we can look around in this country. We have African-Americans serving in state- wide positions. Of course, we have an African-American Republican on the U.S. Supreme Court.

African-Americans serving state-wide in Florida and Texas so look, we have conservatives, blacks, conservatives, liberals, moderates and Herman Cain right now has done a phenomenal job. Not only support of the Tea Party, the question is, can he put together an organization?

Can he win enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination? If he secures nomination then you know what? We will have a historic election in 2012.

BLITZER: Is it realistic at all, do you think, Alex that an African- American will be the Republican nominee this time around?

CASTELLANOS: It just goes to show you who the party of diversity and equal opportunity is. Obviously the Republicans, Wolf. Yes, sure, I absolutely do.

I think for a long time if a woman was president, it t was thought it would have to be a Republican woman to bring it across the 50-yard line, but of course, America is ready for that, yes.

Herman Cain will be judged like every other candidate on the Republican side on his merits, on his leadership abilities, on his principles, and right now he's the best orator and the most charismatic candidate in the field.

BLITZER: Let's see how he does at the debate here in Las Vegas tomorrow night. Donna, if he were to get the Republican nomination and that's a big still at this point. No one knows what's going to happen between now and the end of the Republican contest.

The last time around, 2008, what the president got about 95 percent of African-American votes in the United States. How do you think that would split up next time around? It is obviously very early in the process.

BRAZILE: Well, as you know, Wolf, African-American voters like all- Americans, they want a president who will not only fight for issues that they care about, jobs and economy, that is number one in the African-American community like it is among all African-Americans.

Look, the allegiance to the Democratic Party is because the Democratic Party is a party of opportunity. The Democratic Party has reached out to African-Americans. When Alex say diversity, there is room for diversity in both political parties.

The fact is that we only have one African-American as governor of a state in this country. We need more gender diversity in this country with only six female governors. So I welcome diversity and opportunity for all Americans in both political parties.

CASTELLANOS: The president though, Donna, has created a real opportunity for Republicans in the black community, minority communities, Hispanic communities because no one is suffering the pains of the Obama economy more than black Americans unemployment rates are going to through the roof there especially for young people.

So we have, I think, Republicans have an opportunity, candidate like Herman Cain for example, somebody who has lived that success and can lead from example. You know, President Obama, economic expert, is someone who studied the economy. Herman Cain is an economic expert because he's been successful.

BLITZER: Hold your thought because I know you would like to respond, but unfortunately, we can't right now. You are on your way out of here.

BRAZILE: I am on my way. They will not stay in Vegas when I get there, trust me.

CASTELLANOS: All right. See you at the tables.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Don't forget, tomorrow night, right here in Vegas, the Western Republican presidential debate, 8 p.m. Eastern only, only here on CNN.

A major disagreement threatening right now, the next phase of the United States mission in Iraq. Why the U.S. military presence might drop to virtually zero, right at the beginning of next year. What is going no one U.S./Iraqi relations? Standby lots at stake.

And Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, he is here, live in Las Vegas. We will talk about his dramatic plan to cut $1 trillion, yes, $1 trillion. Get rid of five cabinet agencies, he is joining us, 5:30 p.m. Eastern. In a half hour or so, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack is joining us once again with the Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Of course, in this hour, where are these "Occupy Wall Street" protests destined to end? Bob writes, the people who are protesting have no clear agenda. It seems like a lot of anger, but I think it is in the wrong place. It should be directed at the White House. It is the president's agenda that's destroying our country.

Ken in Seattle writes, depends to some extent to whether or not they come to recognize their image is getting in the way of their message, which itself is frequently ill defined. Many of them seemed to have good intentions, but others seemed to be more interested in having the reason to beat their drums and party. And trashing public property does nothing to sway public opinion to support changes in the way Wall Street is allowed to operate.

The exuberance of youth must give way to a discipline approach it order to change. They need way more gray hairs in their midst to help them channel their energy and good intentions into something that has broader appeal and thus a greater chance of success.

Steven on Facebook writes, not enough widespread support is spread to 82 countries outside the U.S. make no mistake, the little guy has been pushed around long enough.

Bert in Los Angeles, hi, Jack. Been to "Occupy Los Angeles" several times myself and noticed a recurring theme in the speeches and signs quoting the declaration of independence. People say government has become destructive of the rights that document was instituted to secure and that it is our duty to alter our government. Signs reading corporations are not people and money is not speech indicate an amendment saying these things is in our destiny.

Jim in Denver writes, "I hope it doesn't. The rest of us (99 percent) need this movement to put pressure on the Tea Party, Congress (both sides) and Wall Street. The Silent Majority is sick and tired of special interests and wing-nut groups that are trying to control the country. Enough is enough."

And Jeff in Georgia writes, "Mr Cafferty, these whacky disorganized protests will end and the sissy counter-culture hipster miscreants will go back to their communes and their parents' homes when winter rolls in."

You want to read more on this, go to my blog -- cnn.com/caffertyfile, or through our port on the CNN Facebook page.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.