Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Catholic Group Files Suit Over Contraception Rule; Interview With Ron Paul; Contraception Controversy; Key Conservatives Gather In Washington; CPAC Then and Now; Street Vendor Plans Congressional Run; New Nuclear Reactors Approved; Politicians Behaving Badly

Aired February 9, 2012 - 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: Happening now: verbal warfare between Mitt Romney and the man who slapped him with three humiliating defeats this week, Rick Santorum. The latest skirmish in the battle for the GOP nomination is especially fierce today.

We're going to talk about that rivalry with another candidate, Ron Paul. He's standing by to join us live. I will also ask why he's skipping a major conservative summit under way right now here in Washington.

Plus, the contraception controversy dogging President Obama. Did top aides, including the vice president, Joe Biden, warn him about it beforehand? New information coming in.

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

A new threat from the right and now a new target for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. It's going full force against Rick Santorum after three state victories on Tuesday. And although he's outgunned in terms of campaign size and money, Santorum is returning fire, trying to give as good as he gets.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is following the battle for us.

A lot going on, on this day, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

It sounded like Rick Santorum was referring to Mitt Romney as Mr. Burns, the villain from "The Simpsons" who once said release the hounds. That's because in the race for the GOP alpha dog, the fangs are out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Rick Santorum doesn't need anybody to tell him who let the dogs out.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just think it's interesting you're asking that question about Governor Romney and his attack dogs. That just tells you a little bit about what his campaign is all about. ACOSTA: Ever since Santorum's surprising sweep on Tuesday, those dogs have been on the hunt, sinking their teeth into the former Pennsylvania senator's support for pet projects in Congress.

As one campaign e-mail put it, Santorum never met an earmark he didn't like. Santorum's spending record has been the subject of team Romney conference calls.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need an executive, somebody that has experience managing things.

ACOSTA: Even Romney has been getting in on the act.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe that while Senator Santorum was serving in Congress and the Senate, government spending increased by some 80 percent.

ACOSTA: Santorum defends his support for earmarks, even ones for controversial projects like the V-22 Osprey, a plane-helicopter hybrid that was plagued with safety problems, including two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 Marines.

SANTORUM: One of the earmarks I had was for the V-22 Osprey, which Dick Cheney and the first Bush administration wanted to shut down, but the Congress said no, that the V-22 was an important project and we overruled the administration with an earmark.

ACOSTA: Santorum points out Romney has an earmark record too.

SANTORUM: Look at his requests to Ted Kennedy and to John Kerry and to all the congressional offices. He was very forthright about seeking and supporting earmarks when they were coming to Massachusetts.

ACOSTA: Romney also presided over the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, which received millions of dollars in federal funding. Those projects caught the attention of a certain earmark critic who now backs Romney.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: And for the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, that bill to American taxpayers is estimated to be $1.3 billion. That's outrageous, Mr. President, and it's a disgrace.

ACOSTA: The Romney campaign offered this statement to CNN, likening Santorum's history of earmarks to thievery, saying -- quote -- "Senator Santorum is like a shopaholic who wants to blame department stores for his spending obsession."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: As for Romney's record of seeking earmarks as governor, as congressional source tells CNN he did coordinate with Democrats on Capitol Hill when it came to seeking federal money for roads projects. Romney now supports a ban on earmarks in Congress. Santorum says he supports a moratorium. They both agree they don't like them. BLITZER: But do you get a sense from the Romney folks they are now more worried about Santorum or more worried about Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul for that matter?

ACOSTA: Take a look at the Romney campaign e-mails. A lot of them get those out on the campaign trail. And at the top of a Romney e-mail today, they had a custom banner made for Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum never left Washington is what the banner says. They only draw those up for the candidates they don't like. And they're a little concerned about it.

BLITZER: It looks like they're more worried about Santorum right now than Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul for that matter. All right, thanks very much.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's dig a little bit deeper into what is going on. Lots going on. We're going to speaking shortly with Ron Paul, the Republican presidential candidate. Stand by for that. Lots of important questions for him.

But I want to bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. She is watching everything unfolding right now.

Romney has got to give a major speech tomorrow before this conservative group that is now meeting here in Washington, a very important conservative group. What does he need to do?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He needs to inspire them, Wolf, and he needs to make them believe that he's one of them.

As you know, conservatives have been quite skeptical about Mitt Romney, not only because of his past on the cultural issues, but also because he's talked about things like indexing the minimum wage, for example, to inflation. Conservatives don't want to do that.

He has an opportunity tomorrow at this convention. Ironically he spoke to them four years ago this week, Wolf, when he was pulling out of the presidential race. Let's take a listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I will continue to stand for conservative principles. I'll fight alongside you for all the things we believe in. And one of the things we believe is that we cannot allow the next president of the United States to retreat in the face of evil extremism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: Wolf, he received a great reception there four years ago, because, don't forget, even though he was getting out of the race, he was the conservative candidate, because they didn't like John McCain.

BLITZER: He was the conservative alternative to John McCain at that point. I remember it.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: He was. And now he's got to prove his conservative credentials.

BLITZER: Let me read to you from the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page today. It's a major voice, as you know, for conservatives out there.

They have this criticism of Romney. "Now his political team's instinct will dig into its oppo, opposition research, and savage Mr. Santorum. This may get Romney 50.1 percent of the GOP delegates, but he would be a weaker nominee for it." Pretty strong words.

BORGER: Yes, but I think it's a fair point. As you and I have been talking, first of all, you lose independent voters over that.

You have got to attack Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, if you will, because he has no choice but to win Arizona and Michigan. So he has been to differentiate himself. But I have been talking to a lot of Republican strategists, and they're always eager to give their advice to Mitt Romney.

What they're saying to me is he needs to start filling out that storyline, change the narrative, not just say I'm the business guy, but say, you know what? I need to fix Washington, we need to fix it. Here's how I would do it.

That way, they say, you know what? He might be able to tap into the anger of the Tea Party, for example, by being anti-Washington, not just being an outsider. And he can take on more of a populist appeal that way. We have heard him do it a little bit, talking about his father, for example, and more of his biography. But they say, you know what? He needs to kind of change the storyline right now.

BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very, very much. Stick around. I want you to listen to this interview.

Joining us now is the Republican presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul. He's in his home state of Texas.

Congressman, as usual, thanks very much for coming in, but quick question. Why aren't you at this Conservative Political Action Conference that is under way here in Washington? The other three Republican candidates will be addressing the group tomorrow.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, we made the decision a couple months ago not to do it. It was a matter of resources.

You know, we have a lot of young people that are involved in our campaign. And we ask a lot of them, and they're doing a lot of hard work, and they do the phone calling and the door knocking, and all these things that they do and they're scattered by. So we just decided that we wouldn't put the effort. People don't come there just automatically. And our supporters, we have asked them to do other jobs, so we had decided that a couple months ago not to come to CPAC.

BLITZER: How do you explain the recent success of Rick Santorum, certainly at the expense of Mitt Romney?

PAUL: I think it's the frustration with the Republican base. And the turnouts keep going down. I think there's a few Republicans that might not even vote Republican this year, and we certainly have a lot of those that come to our rallies from the Democratic Party. They won't vote Democrat and they join our rallies.

But I think it's the lack of enthusiasm for any of the other three. Mitt has been around for a bit, and they know what he stands for. But there's a bit of irony, though, for Santorum to be the one that's criticizing Mitt Romney for being liberal, because when we do the analysis and look at his voting record, he's not a moderate.

He has voted for a lot of big government things. So from my viewpoint, it's a bit ironic that this sharp criticism and these arguments and debates going back and forth -- I don't know -- maybe the people are getting tired of it, and maybe they're getting tired of the Republicans bickering among themselves when they realize that their positions are essentially the same.

And, of course, we're not on the top. We see ourselves growing in enthusiasm and our numbers keep growing, so hopefully our message will resonate and more will join us. I think that will be the case.

BLITZER: Because, I way I see it, from your perspective, and correct me if you think I'm wrong, you have your positions. They're very well known to all of your supporters and a lot of other folks, but you look at the other three Republican candidates still left in this race, you don't see a whole lot of difference among these other three, do you?

PAUL: No, I don't.

And if you're talking just about political strategy and political consequences, that, of course, falls to a benefit to us, because in many ways I'm running against the status quo, individuals that support the positions that existed. They don't question anything in foreign policy or anything in monetary policy.

And they have been big spenders. I mean, none of them were -- when they had a chance to really show fiscal conservatism, they didn't do it. They talked sort of that way now, but they don't offer any cuts, so there is a difference. But I think that is what's raising the frustration level with many Republicans, and I have to just work hard to present my case for limited government and a different monetary system and looking at entitlements and actual cuts.

And you know that I have proposed and am very sincere about it -- and people know that -- that I would cut a trillion dollars out of the budget. I think government is too big. And if you want it smaller, you have to cut the spending.

BLITZER: You speak about your monetary policy. I know you want to go back to the gold standard. So walk us through how that would work out, how that would play out. Right now, the international economy is basically based on the U.S. dollar.

If you went to the gold standard, how do you change that? Walk us through the process.

PAUL: Well, not easily.

You couldn't do it with waving a wand. You couldn't do it in a day. You can't get rid of the Fed in a day, but you have to have gradualism and work it out. When we went back on the gold standard after the Civil War, it was like 17 years later and they had a three- year transition period.

So it has to be worked out. And all I want to do is legalize competition with this paper money system. The world is going to come crashing down financially when this continues, especially what is happening in Europe. But I just want people to opt out of it and be able to preserve their wealth by using another currency.

And the system, even by those who are very much in charge on international finance, knows this is coming, because they're talking about a new currency, but they're talking about another paper currency run by the United Nations. And that, of course, would be an anathema to those of us who believe that we have a national sovereignty and right to protect our own currency.

BLITZER: Because you say the system is about to come crashing down. If you take a look at the last three years, since President Obama took office, if you look at the Dow Jones, the Wall Street numbers, they have really gone up a lot, from under 7000, 6500, 6800, to over 12000, approaching 13000.

Why are these numbers so good right now?

PAUL: Well, because the Fed is creating so much money. The inflation is an increase in supply of money. We never know where exactly it will go, but they will channel it.

So they channeled it to the financial markets, and the banks got the money for free, where the people who produce jobs, they don't even get the loans. It's much safer for the banks to borrow at zero percent and loan it back to the government at 3 percent. And they get out of trouble.

And the stocks like that, but there's no real growth, irregardless of what these employment statistics shows. In the past 10 years, there's really been no growth. We have had a 30 million increase in population, but no significant increase in productive jobs. This country is in much worse shape.

And when you count all the unemployment, even by government statistics, the unemployment rate is 11 percent. And that's why the people feel a lot worse than the government tells us we're supposed to feel. And I think the American people know that. And that's why there's still a lot of concern about the economy.

BLITZER: Where do you stand, Congressman, on the debate that's under way, the fight that's under way right now between the White House and the Catholic Church on contraception as far as religious- based hospitals, charities, universities, that would be required to provide contraception.

You're a doctor, among other things. Where do you stand on this fight that's going on, not only as a physician, but a libertarian?

PAUL: Well, the position that -- I just don't like mandates and telling people what to do. We get into trouble, though, when you use taxpayer funding to do things you shouldn't be doing.

So, when the taxpayers get involved, then you say, how can you be fair to everybody? Well, you can't be. So the government shouldn't be funding it. But, certainly, if the funding is going to occur, you don't tell churches what they should do. So I don't like the mandates at all. And I think Obama has dug a hole for himself here, because he's trampling on religious conviction.

But the political and economic and constitutional approach of government being involved in doing things like this is really where it starts, because then you say, when you have a government program, how can you satisfy everybody's wants and wills and what they want to do and protect everybody?

It's absolutely impossible. This is why, if it's voluntary, if you have voluntary churches or whatever, you can do what you want, and the government doesn't have a say, just to protect voluntary choices, rather than the government dictating to people on what they should or shouldn't do about birth control.

BLITZER: I want to be precise on this and then I'll let you go. Let's say you're a woman who works at Georgetown University Hospital, which is a Catholic-based university hospital. You're not necessarily Catholic, you want to -- or even if you are Catholic, you want to have access, your health insurance to get birth control pills. Should you be -- should your health insurance company be required to provide you that kind of access?

PAUL: No. Then it's not insurance. I mean, once there's a government involvement insurance in there and it dictates, but if insurance were voluntary issue for individuals rather than the way we deliver it with tax benefits to large corporations, and your medical benefits go with the corporation become very complex. But in a true free market, you pick the company that would provide you with the services that you want. It would be like picking out which life insurance policy you want, or picking out what kind of house policy you want, or what kind of car policy you said. It would be individualized.

But once again, the government has been involved in this health care business for so long and -- but when they put a mandate on and say, you must do this or must do that, it's no longer insurance. They're not measuring their risk at all. The customer is not making a choice and the businessman is not making a choice.

So, it's the fault of compulsion by government-run programs that will inevitably lead to these arguments and fights.

BLITZER: Are you going to win the Maine caucuses Saturday?

PAUL: I think we have a chance to do that. We'll be up there and stand up (ph) to the last minute. But every time I've been up there, the support has been wonderful. And I'm so pleased that they're very receptive to the ideas of liberty, and I'm cautiously optimistic about Saturday.

BLITZER: We'll be covering it with a special SITUATION ROOM, 6:00 p.m. Eastern starting our coverage Saturday night.

Congressman Paul, as usual, thanks very much for coming in.

PAUL: Thank you.

BLITZER: "The Cafferty File" is up next.

Then, more on the contraception controversy dogging President Obama. Did top aides, including the Vice President Joe Biden, warn him of the political risk beforehand?

And the slaughter in Syria. What hacked e-mails allegedly reveal about the government's efforts to manipulate the world news media.

Plus, a politics blaming women for a rise in rape cases. Wait until you see what he's caught doing. We have the video.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: As a serious brutal crackdown intensifies, it seems increasingly likely now that there could be some kind of military action. The United Nations is calling for the international community to protect the Syrian population.

One opposition group reports that government forces killed more than 130 civilians in Syria today, most of them in the city of Homs. There are reports of bomb explosion every few minutes, wounded people bleeding to death in the streets because they can't get medical help, and of snipers picking off civilians running for cover. Doctors inside Syria say government forces are targeting hospitals, medical staffs and patients.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command have begun reviewing military options. One senior official calls it a scoping exercise, to see what's possible, given all our other military commitments in the region. It's not unusual for the Pentagon to do this. It's so they have the options ready if the president wants them at some point. They're likely considering everything from humanitarian relief to support of opposition groups inside Syria.

Senior officials tell CNN that outright military strikes are unlikely. Some have suggested setting up a humanitarian corridor, a safe haven for civilians. That could require the use of troops from somewhere. Others, including Senator John McCain have said the U.S. should consider all options, including arming the opposition. The State Department says while they never take anything off the table, they don't think sending more arms into Syria is the answer.

It's believe that any military action in Syria would be riskier and more complicated than the Libyan mission, and a lot of people don't think the United States should have gotten involved in that.

Here's the question: if there's military action against Syria, should the United States be involved?

Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, post a comment on my blog, or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

Are the conservative activists who are gathering here in Washington worried that President Obama will be tough to beat? Erick Erickson has the inside track. He and Donna Brazile, they're both standing by for our strategy session.

Also, stand by for some shocking details out of Syria. We now know what advisers to Syria's President Bashar al Assad were telling him to say as the crackdown escalated.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A Catholic cable TV network is now suing the U.S. government in a lawsuit over a controversial health care reform provision. It requires religiously affiliated employers to provide full contraception coverage to women. The issue is certainly dogging President Obama and sparking fierce partisan debate.

Our White House correspondent Dan Lothian is joining us right now. He's got the latest.

Dan, what are you picking up there?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, again, this is one of those issues that is not going away. At the White House, discussions continue behind the scenes, and according to a source familiar with the Catholic community, the administration has spoken with at least one progressive Catholic group.

And in another development, a short time ago, we heard from Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who's now calling for a compromise. He believes that there can be a balance between providing the health care that people need but also respecting religious beliefs.

What's clear here is that opposition to the ruling does not break along party lines.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): It's a controversial decision that keeps dogging the president.

REPORTER: Are there any thoughts you can share, Mr. President, on the contraception policy before you leave?

LOTHIAN: After days of heavy pressure from Catholic groups and Republicans on the trail and on Capitol Hill --

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Government shouldn't be telling these institutions what to do, and they certainly shouldn't be oppressing them.

LOTHIAN: Some Democrats are joining the political fray and criticizing the president's decision, including former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who said he expressed grave concerns to the White House over its policy that requires religious affiliated organization to provide contraception coverage.

TIM KAINE (D-VA), SENATE CANDIDATE: I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious employer exception.

LOTHIAN: Kaine, who's campaigning for a Senate seat and was the president's choice to lead the DNC, made the comments in a taped interview on "Hearsay with Cathy Lewis", a public affairs radio show in Norfolk, Virginia.

More pressure on the administration came in this letter from House Democratic leader John Larson to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. While he supports the requirement for contraceptive services, Representative Larson wrote, quote, "I believe that further flexibility needs to be granted to religiously affiliated organization in this instance."

White House sources admit aides were split on this decision, but dismissed accounts that it was along gender lines.

And then this was the question of who in the president's inner circle, perhaps former Chief of Staff Bill Daley or Vice President Biden, tried to change his mind.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not going to get into internal deliberations and who was on which side of discussions and debates internally.

LOTHIAN: To be sure, the White House does have supporters on this issue, among Catholic and other religious group, and from Democrats who are pressuring the president not to back down.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: This latest ruling on women's access to reproductive health care and family planning has been absolutely politicized in this what I call an ongoing war against women.

REP. NITA LOWEY (D), NEW YORK: My colleagues and I stand in solidarity with American women, who have waited decades for equity in contraceptive coverage.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: But now, there's bipartisan legislation from Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, looking to repeal this portion of the health care law. They believe that the federal government has overreached. They are hopeful that the president will reconsider, but they say if he doesn't, then Congress will act.

And one other note, Wolf, just a short time ago, after wrapping up a meeting with the Italian prime minister here at the White House, the president was again asked to comment on this controversy. He said, "Oh, come on, guys," certainly appearing frustrated or irritated by the question. But again, there's a lot of pressure on this White House and it doesn't seem to be going away.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say -- it was suggested in "New York Times" yesterday that the women, a lot of the women who work for the president supported this decision, but some of the Catholic men, like and you pointed out like perhaps Joe Biden, the former --

LOTHIAN: That's right. We've seen a lot reported about that, but the White House really has been pushing back. That it really hasn't been along gender lines here at the White House. Yes, clearly there was opposition.

There are some aides who thought this was the right decision, others who thought it was not, but here at the White House they're saying that both men and women were on both sides of this issue. It wasn't according to gender -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian at the White House, thanks very much.

Syrian opposition group is reporting as many as 137 deaths at the hands of government forces today. And now we're getting a shocking inside look at how the Syrian government is allegedly stemming the crackdown to the outside world.

The source, secret e-mails posted by the notorious hacking group "Anonymous." Brian Todd is here. He's working this story for us. Brian, what exactly are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one person we know who is connected to that hacker group, "Anonymous," says these e-mails appeared to be authentic. If so, it does not look like Bashar Al- Assad's aides have a very high opinion of Americans.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It's days before a big interview with an American network and Bashar Al-Assad is being coached, to spin this crackdown, one aide writes, don't talk reform. Americans won't care or understand that.

The aide advises the Syrian president to talk about, quote, "mistakes," blame his own police. American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are, quote, "mistakes done" and now we are, quote, "fixing it." Here's what Assad then said about the crackdown in that early December interview with ABC's Barbara Walters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA: These are individuals and individual mistakes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Done by the military or done by whom?

ASSAD: We don't know everything, but some cases done by the police, summer cases done by Syrians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: That e-mail on what to say was apparently from (INAUDIBLE) press attache at Syria's mission to the U.N. to one of Assad's press aides in Damascus. The hacker group, "Anonymous" posted the e-mail passwords of top Syrian officials.

Hackers like this one cited by "Foreign Policy" magazine claimed to have downloaded the e-mails and posted them online. CNN has seen the e-mails. They appeared legitimate, though we cannot independently verify their authenticity.

The e-mail apparently from Jafari advises Assad on a quote to give. Syria doesn't have a policy to torture people, says he can contrast that with the U.S. and mention Abu Ghraib.

Referring to Assad as H.E. for "his excellency" it says at one point, H.E. was viewed as a hero and in other times H.E. was the bad guy. Americans love these kinds of things and get convinced by it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They think that the American public is really stupid.

TODD: Ahed Al Hendi is a Syrian dissident who says he was one imprisoned and tortured by the regime.

AHED AL HENDI, SYRIAN ACTIVIST AND DISSIDENT: This is what they told us at the school that the Americans know nothing about the world. They really in slave their people. The worker has no rights in the U.S., and they really think so. They think that the American is easy to fool.

TODD: David Kenner of "Foreign Policy" magazine says the e-mail reflects an amateurish effort to present Syria's case to the world.

(on camera): What is their current media strategy?

DAVID KENNER, "FOREIGN POLICY" MAGAZINE: Honestly, I think at this point they think they have lost the western media. They have lost the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Kenner says at this point, the Syrian government is more interested in winning public opinion and government support in Russia and in Iran. We called and e-mailed Syria's mission to the U.N. to get response to the hacking and to the criticism from that one official, (INAUDIBLE). We have not heard back -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's very surprising, even funny, the passwords that the Syrians use for these e-mails.

TODD: It's unbelievable. You look down that list to the passwords of these top Syrian officials. Many of them have the password, 12345. Analysts say for a regime so guarded, so attuned to security, they're not very savvy about cyber security.

BLITZER: That's not necessarily a great password.

TODD: No.

BLITZER: OK, Brian, thanks very much. So are the conservative activists who are gathering here in Washington worried that President Obama will be tough to beat?

Eric Erickson is here, he's been an insight. He's been over at the conference. Donna Brazile is also standing by. Our "Strategy Session" is coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, let's get to our "Strategy Session" right now. Joining us our CNN contributors, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile and Erick Erickson, the editor in chief of redstate.com.

Erick, you just came over from the CPAC, that Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington. What's the mood over there? What can you tell you about these four Republican presidential finalists? Who do they love? Who's not exciting or not so much?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This is my 7th CPAC. It does not have the energy that other CPACs have had. There are a lot of people do we want to broker the convention? They are not excited about (INAUDIBLE). Santorum I think has the crowd.

When I was on a panel discussion earlier and raised the point that we can't be picking our nominee based on electability because as the economy changes, electability changes. We should go on values and ideas, the crowd roared. They get it.

They don't think the leadership in the party gets it. The morning started off with talking about broker convention. People asking Jim DeMint would he stand up and be the nominee because they don't like the other nominees. He suggested Rubio and Pat Toomey. The crowd went wild. These are people who -- they're not excited and they get what's happening.

By the way, I do need to give kudos to this network being the network of broadcasting live from CPAC today as opposed to so many of the other networks.

BLITZER: Soledad O'Brien will be there in the morning. You look -- he makes a good point because voter turnout in the most recent Republican contest was down compared to four years ago, but I thought it was you, Donna. I know you're a strong ardent Democrat. I wouldn't get over confident right now. The president is by no means a shoo-in.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Look, I've been looking at this as a strategist not just as a Democrat. I'm confident that President Obama will win re-election, but it's not --

BLITZER: He's got to work really hard.

BRAZILE: We all know that it's going to be a tough headwind, but let me just tell you why I'm confident. I'm confident because the conservatives right now, they are restless.

They want a champion. They want somebody who can throw the ball -- throw the ball -- that's a football metaphor, let me make sure.

All right, I love you for that, but they want somebody who could throw the ball. They want somebody who can help them run the plays, speak their language, know their values.

They're not looking for a moderate. They're not looking f just somebody who is electable and acceptable. They want somebody who can fight for them.

BLITZER: Four years ago, Mitt Romney, he lost to John McCain. He was a darling of the CPAC conference. He was the conservative alternative to John McCain. He's going to be speaking there tomorrow.

What does he need to do tomorrow to win this crowd over? I'm talking about Mitt Romney. By all accounts, he's got the best organization, the most money. He's poised to get that nomination.

ERICKSON: He needs to show the crowd he's willing to fight on conservative ideas. That he actually --

BLITZER: Hasn't he been doing that?

ERICKSON: No, if you talk to the base conservative, they say his tax plan is weak. He had a 50-page, 59-point plan no one read. He's refused to come out aggressively on Social Security and entitlement reform.

They want someone who's going to come and not necessarily (INAUDIBLE) independence, but say, I'm willing to go with bold tax reform. I'm willing to deal with the national debt.

He's been defined by Santorum and Gingrich together as someone who would be happy managing the country into decline. He needs to prove that he doesn't want to manage the country --

BLITZER: I just wrote on my SITUATION ROOM blog post that Democrats still believe it's going to be Mitt Romney. They're gearing up for a battle with Mitt Romney.

BRAZILE: The reason why he's on the ballot in all of these states, he has a terrific organization, but as we both witnessed the other night, that didn't really matter in those three states.

The bottom line is, they want somebody who possesses the vision and also the passion that will arouse the base, but still appeal to independents.

And Mitt Romney based on what I've seen and I've been to a couple of his events, he has a long way to go before he become the true conservative in this race.

BLITZER: Santorum has a lot of momentum lately. He seems to be doing rather well.

ERICKSON: I've talked to Gingrich and Santorum people close to the campaigns today, and don't be surprised if we do start seeing them divide up the field to keep Mitt Romney from getting to 1,144. They're in game right now given ballot access. It's just to stop him not necessarily to clinch the nominee.

BLITZER: Santorum is going to be John King's guest at 6 p.m. Eastern on "JOHN KING USA" today.

BRAZILE: I like turtlenecks. I don't have a vest.

BLITZER: I know you have a sleeveless vest.

ERICKSON: Yes, right.

BLITZER: And certainly not your average street vendor. He's been called a hero, now he's hoping to be called congressman. Why he's running for office. That's coming up.

And a new study is giving a glimmer of hope to Alzheimer's patients. How an electric shock may help them keep their memories.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: No one job lends itself to politics. Some politicians are lawyers to be sure. Many come from the business world, a few are even athletes, but as far as we know, there are no street vendors holding elected office.

Mary Snow is joining us from New York right now. Mary, there's more to this man than just being a street vendor, isn't it?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot more, Wolf. You may remember hearing about Duane Jackson in the wake of the attempted car bombing in Times Square nearly two years ago.

He was in the spotlight. He even got a call from the president. Now he wants to take his street smarts to Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to Times Square.

SNOW (voice-over): Meet Duane Jackson. He's the vendor in Times Square who alerted police to a car bomb in May of 2010. It belonged to the man who is serving life in prison for the foiled bombing attempt.

Jackson, a 59-year-old Vietnam vet won honors for his action, but now wants to make a name for himself in politics.

DUANE JACKSON, PLANNING CONGRESSIONAL RUN: In 2010, this car was filled with explosives parked in back of me, and certainly had it going on. And two years later, I decided to run for the Congress of the United States.

SNOW (on camera): How did that attempted car bombing here in Times Square change your life?

JACKSON: Well, you know, certainly when I walked up to the vehicle, I didn't know what the contents were. And as I looked back at it, how can I make a difference? That difference somewhat started that night.

SNOW (voice-over): While his inspiration may have been sparked then, he says partisan politics drives him now. The former city planner says he knows a thing or two about dealing with people being in the cross roads of the world.

JACKSON: Just being Joe citizen. You know, I hate to knock lawyers and I know there are a lot of them in Congress, and I hope to certainly work with some of them.

SNOW: Jackson plans to run in a Democratic primary roughly 40 miles north of New York City, in the 19th district where he lives. He hopes to challenge incumbent Republican Congresswoman Nan Hayworth.

Her office declined comment, but the Republican National Congressional Committee pointed out Jackson wasn't the only vendor to call police. Saying for his sake, I hope there's less controversy about Mr. Jackson's candidacy than there was surrounding whether he was the street vendor that alerted police.

For his part, Jackson is drawing on the aftermath of that May night.

JACKSON: The phone call from the president was very humbling. The governor came by here, but about four days after the incident, Dolly Parton came by here in a black SUV, and Dolly said to me, darling, thank you so much for what you did. God bless you and I love you.

I'm a novist to this whole thing, but it is instances like that that I draw upon to know that Duane Jackson, you're on the right track.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Needless to say a big Dolly Parton fan, but Duane Jackson says he believes he's on the right track. He also expects to be far behind in the money category, but he vows to make up for a lack of cash with an unconventional campaign -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It wouldn't be surprised if an unconventional campaign can get the job done. Thanks very much, Mary, for that story.

An existing treatment for other conditions could help people with Alzheimer's disease. We have details of new research.

And lawmakers caught on tape watching porn while in session.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Nuclear regulators are doing something they haven't done in more than 30 years. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM. What do you have, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, for the first time since 1978, the path is clear for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. Regulators approved the licenses this morning.

The reactors are being built in a nuclear plant that is already home to two older reactors. The new ones are expected to come online in 2016 and 2017 and provide enough power for a million homes.

Well, sending jolts of electricity to the brain may help improve memory. Now researchers hope the technique could one day help Alzheimer's patients. A new study used a small number of epilepsy patients with electoids already embedded in their brains to monitor seizures. When the part of their brain responsible for memory was stimulated, they performed better than others on memory-related tasks.

And at the bizarre intersection of foreign policy and pop culture, some fans of Madonna are begging Israel's leaders to hold off any attack on Iran, at least until the end of May.

A new Facebook group called BB, don't start a war with Iran until after Madonna's show on May 29th. BB, of course, is a popular nickname for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

(Inaudible) have canceled shows in Israel in the past. The Red Hot Chile Peppers, The Pixies and others have all postponed concerts during previous conflicts between Israel and other countries.

I think it's safe to say, Wolf, that the Madonna concert will not be a major factor in the Israeli cabinet's deliberations.

BLITZER: Probably not on the cabinet, but among a lot of Madonna fans in Israel. I'm sure it will be a huge factor. All right, thanks very much for that.

A politician blames a rise in rape cases on what women wear, but wait until you see what he was caught doing. We have the video standby.

And we're working our sources to show you how Syrians are risking their lives to make sure the world knows what's happening inside their country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Three politicians in India are stepping down after a camera caught them watching what appears to be porn during a House session. CNN's Sara Sidner has the story from the Indian capital of New Delhi.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: These two ministers say they were doing the people's work during this legislative session, but critics say that's not what they're doing here on camera.

The ministers are accused of watching videos of a sex act on a cell phone. Several local TV stations were filming while a debate was underway, but they noticed the two ministers staring down on cell phone in a Kornitika House assembly in Southern India.

In one shot the camera zooms into the cell phone. It appears to show several people involved in a sex act. The video from local news channel was broadcast across the country, and caused such an uproar leaders were forced to adjourn the subsequent state legislative meeting.

The two ministers shown looking at the phone, (INAUDIBLE), minister for cooperation and (INAUDIBLE) minister for women and child development resigned along with the minister for ports who allegedly supplied the cell phone.

The ministers denied they were watching pornography, but said they were resigning to save their party from embarrassment. We told our government and our party we don't want to be seen as criminals so we're happy to resign, he says.

Public outrage heightened because one of the ministers involved is the minister of Women and Child Welfare, who recently blamed the rise in rape cases on women wearing provocative clothing.

When confronted with the incident, the minister for cooperation said he was not watching pornography, but instead watching a woman being raped by four people as part of an investigation into the ill effects of rave parties.

The chief minister of the state says the three men didn't make any mistakes, but he is accepting their resignation. All three says their names will be cleared, but for now they are stepping down. Sara Sidner, CNN, New Delhi.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's go right to Jack for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack. CAFFERTY: If there's military action in Syria at some point, and a lot of people think there might be, should the United States be involved?

Claudia writes in Houston, "Our economy itself is in a life or death situation for many Americans. No one is coming to bail us out. As much as we all hate to see what's unfolding in Syria, if we continue fighting wars for other countries, we won't be able to fight the war of poverty and jobs in our own country."

M writes, "Only if it's done the same way we handled Libya. No boots on the ground, no bloodshed." Ron in Arkansas says, "We can't afford to be involved for several reasons. One, we're broke, two the Middle East is a quagmire. We'll always be the invaders, the infidels, the baby killers and there will be innocent death either from air attacks or ground assault."

Jeff in Minnesota writes, "For humanitarian purposes yes, the U.S. should be involved, but if it's military support and military on the ground, it's time for the Arab League and Arab countries to do the dirty work. The U.S. can provide logistical support for them."

Ben in Boston writes, "Russia and China would probably support a cease-fire monitored and enforced on all sides by an international force. I would try a non-military strategy like this first. I think we ought to stand down from further military involvement in the region at this time."

Susan writes, "Why not? It will be the perfect prelude to Iran waiting in the wings a few months from now, alas sometimes I think we should give up on everything else and become one gigantic military for hire state. As much trouble as there is in the world, we would be operating in the black in no time."

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

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thank you.