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THE SITUATION ROOM

Joe Biden on the Attack; Rick Santorum Under Fire in Puerto Rico; Fired for Using Birth Control?; Super PACs Spend Millions; Is It A Two-Man Race?; Axelrod On Limbaugh, Maher; Harvard's First "Big Dance" In 66 Years

Aired March 15, 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:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The economic theories of Gingrich, Santorum and Romney, they are bankrupt.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And that's just the beginning of Vice President Joe Biden's attack on the Republican presidential candidates as the Obama reelection campaign ramps up.

Also, Spanish, English and statehood, Rick Santorum ignites an unexpected uproar just days before the Puerto Rico primary.

Plus, Hillary Clinton's prospects in 2016. How could she best position herself now for a possible presidential bid then?

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

A turning point in the race for the White House. The Obama campaign is now going directly on the attack against the Republican presidential candidates. They are naming names, and fighting back after months of largely turning the other cheek.

But it's not the president taking on his GOP challengers. That task is now falling to Vice President Joe Biden.

Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is joining us now.

Jessica, this is clearly a new phase in the Obama reelection campaign.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. After months of saying they're just watching the Republicans duke it out on the trail, now team Obama is officially in campaign mode.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Remember, President Obama said this?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will let them determine who their standard bearer is going to be. Until the Republicans have a nominee, we don't have a campaign.

YELLIN: When he hits the stump, he never names the GOP candidates.

OBAMA: A lot of folks who are, you know, running for a certain office, who shall go unnamed...

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: But starting now, the president's top surrogate is.

BIDEN: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, these guys have a fundamentally different economic philosophy than we do.

YELLIN: In a key battleground state of Ohio, he talked auto industry bailout and was on the attack.

BIDEN: Senator Santorum said it was, and I quote, a payoff to special interests, end of quote. Governor Romney was more direct. Let Detroit go bankrupt. He said that.

He said that what we propose, and I quote, is even worse than bankruptcy. You know, it's kind of amazing. Gingrich and Romney and Santorum, they don't let the facts get in their way.

Simply stated, we're about protecting the private sector. They're about protecting the privileged sector. We are for a fair shot and a fair shake. They're about no rules, no risks, and no accountability.

YELLIN: It comes the same day the campaign unveils this 17- minute long-form campaign ad.

NARRATOR: How do we understand this president and his time in office? Do we look at the day's headlines, or do we remember what we as a country have been through?

YELLIN: In other words, the campaign rollout is officially on.

BIDEN: This is the first of four speeches I will be making on behalf of the president and me in the coming weeks.

YELLIN: Dating back to 2008, the vice president has the campaign's unofficial ambassador to blue-collar Catholic and Jewish voters.

A senior Democratic official tells CNN next week the vice president's campaign stop will be in Florida speaking to seniors. In addition to Ohio and Florida, he will also target New Hampshire, Iowa and likely parts of Virginia, plus Pennsylvania.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, two Democratic officials tell me the campaign had planned this rollout for today for this time, because they actually expected the Republicans would have a nominee by now, and they say they couldn't wait until say May or June before basically responding to Republican attacks and in the words of one drawing some contrasts.

BLITZER: And, as you know, Jessica, the president and the first lady they hosted a huge state dinner last night for British Prime Minister David Cameron. These dinners are usually held in the East Room about 120, 130 guests. Last night, what, they were 400 guests invited to the White House for this state dinner.

It's raising some political eyebrows. Explain to our viewers why.

YELLIN: There were 47 bundlers invited to the state dinner by our count last night, bundlers meaning donors who fund-raise huge amounts for the campaign.

This is noteworthy because the Obama team has raised hackles among fund-raisers and supporters in the past because they historically do not invite major donors to these events, and they have been criticized for it. The fact that they did this time is a sign they're now in campaign mode. It's not unusual for a White House to do this, but for this White House to start doing it now is a sign that it's game on for them.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is.

All right, Jessica Yellin, thank you.

Puerto Rico is the latest battleground for the Republican presidential candidates with 20 delegates at stake in this Sunday's primary, but the campaign there has been suddenly sidetracked by a language controversy sparked by Rick Santorum, who says English must be a condition for possible statehood.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is in San Juan.

Jim, you had a chance to speak to Senator Santorum about this. Give us the background. What's going on?

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

Rick Santorum may have hit a language barrier in his hopes to win the Puerto Rico primary, but as he told us earlier today, he's not backing down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's a hot button issue in the sizzling Puerto Rican sun, but Rick Santorum is standing by his comments that Puerto Rico must adopt English as an official language as a condition for statehood. The GOP contender seems willing to take the heat.

(on camera): Should it be a requirement for this territory to become a state?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think English and Spanish -- obviously Spanish is going to be spoken here in the island, but this needs to be a bilingual country, not just a Spanish-speaking country.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Santorum noted the territory has already designated English and Spanish as its official languages, but he went a step further when he told a Puerto Rican newspaper English should be a condition for admission to the U.S. The island votes on whether to become a state later this year.

R. SANTORUM: That would be a requirement. It's a requirement that has been put on other states as a condition for entering the union.

ACOSTA: But Santorum got that wrong. The U.S. has no official language. However, 31 states do, which is why just this week a pro- English-language group called on both Santorum and Mitt Romney to take a position on this issue before this weekend's Puerto Rican primary.

The group's chairman said, should the Puerto Rican people choose to become a state, they must consent to becoming a primarily English- speaking state, but that kind of requirement would force the island to convert all of its road signs to English.

(on camera): They would have to change every road sign...

(CROSSTALK)

R. SANTORUM: Well, I think there are more serious issues than road signs.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The island's Democratic representative in Congress said Santorum's position goes too far.

REP. PEDRO PIERLUISI (D), PUERTO RICO: To impose on Puerto Rico a condition that no other state has, it's unreasonable.

ACOSTA: But it could be costly in other ways. After hearing Santorum's comments, one of his designated delegates in Puerto Rico told reporters he's withdrawing his support.

With Santorum trailing Romney in the GOP delegate count, every state and territory now matters. Puerto Rico's 20 delegates at stake are now crucial enough for Santorum's wife, Karen, to be at his side on the island. The couple visited a school for children with Down syndrome.

KAREN SANTORUM, WIFE OF RICK SANTORUM: We're still (OFF-MIKE) all of us. Sorry.

(APPLAUSE) ACOSTA: Where Mrs. Santorum choked up as she talked about their daughter Bella, who has a rare genetic disorder.

K. SANTORUM: When she was born, she was described as (OFF-MIKE) diagnosis. They said that Bella was incompatible with life. And I have to tell you, we are approaching her fourth birthday.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And Rick Santorum's main rival, Mitt Romney, is scheduled to campaign here in Puerto Rico tomorrow and Saturday. His campaign put out a statement taking a different side on this language issue.

He is not going to insist on Puerto Ricans adopting English as one of its primary languages, a condition for statehood, but, Wolf, this issue could cut two different ways for Rick Santorum. While it may not play well here in Puerto Rico, it could work in states like Wisconsin and Missouri, where conservatives would like to see the United States have an official language as English.

BLITZER: And I suspect he's a lot more worried about how it plays here, on the mainland, as opposed to in Puerto Rico right now, although he would like to get that support, 20 delegates, as you point out, at stake in the Puerto Rico primary on Sunday.

Jim Acosta on the scene for us, as he always is.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, are you seeing any evident that Mitt Romney after his two setbacks in Mississippi and Alabama this week is now changing a bit of the strategy?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there is some evidence, and there's clearly evidence his campaign wants him to. Take a listen to this interview Mitt Romney did today and you will see a change.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My message of jobs and the economy is what's winning for me. I have got a million more votes from citizens than anyone else in this race. And the reason for that is I'm talking about my expertise in the economy and how I'm going to get the economy growing, put people back to work, help people who are trying to pay for gasoline be able to afford it again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: So, Wolf, while he couldn't resist talking about the math a little bit, you see a lot less process in that. You know, he's not saying vote for me, I'm ahead. He's talking about people. And what his campaign is saying to him is, stop with the math, start talking about why you got in this race to be president, how you can fix the economy. Don't talk about yourself as much. Stop talking about the cars your wife drives or the NASCAR owners you know, but talk about the people who are turning to you to fix the economy.

And one thing I'm sure you remember, Wolf, is that Barack Obama, candidate Obama had a math issue he could talk about, saying I'm ahead in delegates. You didn't hear a lot of that from him. He always kept it on a high level. He was talking about what he could do for the American people. That's what they want Mitt Romney to stick to now. We will see if he sticks to the game plan.

BLITZER: And Joe Biden, we're seeing a bit of the old Joe Biden coming back?

BORGER: We are, forcefully as Jessica Yellin just pointed out.

They believe that Joe Biden is the perfect person to take on Mitt Romney because they believe that Joe Biden's appeal is to those blue- collar voters. And, by the way, he can help Barack Obama with the blue-collar voters as well. So they're going to keep him in the Industrial Midwest, also in Florida, also in New Hampshire.

And I have been told, Wolf, that also he's going to be sort of a chief surrogate on about half-a-dozen Senate races. He's already started doing talk radio in Senate races, because, of course, keeping control of the Senate is very key to them as well. So they believe he is a powerful tool for them to use.

BLITZER: And a lot of Democrats think that 25 votes in the House, that could change the balance of power in the House, too. They're not giving up on that either.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Jessica -- Jessica...

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much.

She's very popular and powerful, but will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton run for the White House once again in 2016? And what should she be doing now if she is planning to do so? Stand by.

Also, details of a controversial proposed law on contraception. Critics say women could be fired for using birth control.

Plus, our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he is now a novelist, as well as a brain surgeon. You might be surprised by the subject of his newest book.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama, Wolf, invited almost four dozen of his top campaign fund-raisers to last night's state dinner in honor of the British prime minister. Some of the guests included Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, "Vogue" editor in chief Ana Wintour, along with executives from the private equity company Blackstone, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Microsoft, just to name a few.

Forty-seven of the 360 campaign were bundlers or volunteer fund- raisers for the president's reelection efforts. According to ABC News, it's estimated this group on hand last night has raised $11 million of the $250 million President Obama and the Democrats have raised so far for the 2012 campaign.

Everybody understands that campaigns require money, but is this really the right use of the White House? Seriously?

These folks are known as bundlers, and they're a big deal in campaign finance. Federal campaign rules limit individual contributions to 2,500 bucks. That's where the bundlers kick in. They go and raise big dollars from their friends and associates, bundle it all together and give it to the candidate.

President Obama also invited several donors to the state dinner of the president of South Korea in October, sort of like the what way Clinton used the Lincoln bedroom to repay favors, right?

It's not unusual for presidents to reward big supporters by inviting them to dinners with dignitaries. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also did it. But -- and this is a big but -- Mr. Obama ran on, quote, "the most sweeping ethics reform in history," unquote, back in 2008 and quick to criticize the role money plays in politics. Except I guess when it's time to raise money for his reelection. The more things change in Washington, the more they don't change at all.

Here's the question: should campaign fund-raisers be invited to for foreign dignitaries? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, post a comment on my blog or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page. Here's a hint -- no.

BLITZER: You think , Jack, there are going to be a whole bunch more state dinners between now and November?

CAFFERTY: Hard to tell, you know, but this is a nice what to pay these folks back. But, you know, the White House belongs to us. We just let the president live there, and that's not what it was designed to be used for.

BLITZER: Yes. But in fairness, as you pointed out yourself --

CAFFERTY: I just say they all do it. That doesn't mean it's right.

BLITZER: Right. They all have done it. I covered a lot of these presidents over the years.

CAFFERTY: If we al go down to the corner and rob the liquor store, the last guy in is just as guilty as the first guy.

BLITZER: Yes. Thanks, Jack.

Jack Cafferty will be back with your e-mail.

Religious liberty versus the right to privacy, that's what at the heart of a controversy playing out in Arizona over insurance coverage for contraception.

CNN's Lisa Sylvester is digging deeper for us.

Lisa, tell us what you're finding out.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

Arizona Representative Debby Lesko feels strongly that employer should not be forced to include birth control coverage in their company's health plans. And she's introduced a bill to that effect. But critics say the legislation infringes on women's rights.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): The legislation is so controversial because it applies not just to religious employers but across the board. Under the bill, in order for a woman to have her birth control paid by her employer, she needs to prove it's for medical reasons, and not to prevent pregnancy.

And that has rights groups like the ACLU furious.

ANJALI ABRAHAM, ACLU OF ARIZONA: Under our law so far, women have been able to keep that information private, which is really how it should be. But the bill we see as representing an invasion of privacy because now the woman is going to have to tell her employer private details.

SYLVESTER: The bill has already passed the Arizona statehouse, and it allows an employer to refuse to cover the cost of contraception in their employment health plans if they're opposed to it on moral grounds.

State Representative Debbie Lesko is the bill's sponsor.

STATE REP. DEBBIE LESKO (R), ARIZONA: What my bill does is basically says that Arizona employers can act out of the contraceptive mandate if they have a religious objection. And that's really all my bill does. It's really about religious liberty and our protection of our First Amendment rights.

SYLVESTER: The bill mirrors an effort on the federal level to lift a federal government mandate requiring contraception coverage in insurance plans. Though the Arizona legislation also lifts existing provisions that would make easier for an employee seeking control for non-medical reasons to be fired.

Attorney and CNN legal contributor Paul Callan says if the Arizona bill becomes law, it would likely be fought over in the courts.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Proponents of the law will say we're not prohibiting contraception. We're just restricting the ability of an employer to have to pay for it. So the argument, though, is set up for a very, very serious court challenge, I think, on privacy rights of women in the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: Now, the legislation has passed in the statehouse and it has also passed in the state senate judiciary committee. Both Arizona's House and Senate are Republican controlled. So, this bill has a very good chance of passing, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, thank you. We'll stay on top of this story as well.

Meanwhile, the violence in Syria carries on with no end in sight.

Today, the country reached a milestone, and it's not one for celebration.

Also, Hillary Clinton's political aspirations are back in the spotlight. But does she have her sights set on 2016?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A dubious benchmark in violence in Syria today. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that, also, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What do you have, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Hi, Wolf.

The Syrian government's relentless bombardment across Idlib province presses on as the conflict in Syria enters its second year. This video purportedly shows the opposition striking a tank. At least 24 people were found dead today near far west of a largely pro- opposition province. Activists say the death toll is fast approaching 10,000.

A top Iranian official says Iran wants more clarity from the United Nations nuclear watchdog group before allowing inspectors into a complex south of Tehran. Iran denies it conducted any nuclear experiments at the site. It is suspected of testing explosives there in the early 2000s. The adviser to the ayatollah said today that Iran should expect more cooperation from the West if the West wants more transparency.

And Rod Blagojevich is in prison. The former Illinois governor arrived at a federal prison southwest of Denver today, to begin serving a 14-year sentence for corruption. Blagojevich was convicted last June of 17 counts, including trying to sell President Barack Obama's open Senate seat.

And HBO's drama series "Luck" -- well, it hasn't had a whole lot of it. The cable network abruptly canceled the series yesterday after a horse was injured and subsequently euthanized during production, triggering widespread criticism. Activist rights activists were already investigating the horse-racing centric show starring Dustin Hoffman in connection with the deaths of two other horses last year.

So, that series has come to an end, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

HBO, of course, our sister network here at CNN. Thanks very for that.

She has said she's happy right where she is. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's name is once again being floated in political circles. We're going to explain how.

And what went wrong in the O.R.? I'll talk about that and more with our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's got a brand-new novel that is just coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to our strategy session.

Joining us, the Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, Paul Begala, and the conservative strategist Rich Galen, I should call him a commentator, senior counselor -- former senior counselor to Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Are you still a counselor to Kay Bailey Hutchison?

RICH GALEN, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: No, I'm not a counselor to anyone. You are a counselor.

BLITZER: Yes. Just a counselor of some camp, camp counselor or whatever.

GALEN: The CITs are awful.

BLITZER: The super PACs are gearing up, next Tuesday Illinois, and they're really hammering, the pro-Santorum super PAC. Here's a little flavor of the ads. You're not in the Illinois -- I'll play it for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who has the right experience? Mitt Romney helped create thousands of jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rick Santorum is called the ultimate Washington insider.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Romney rescued the Olympics.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Santorum was in Washington voting to raise the debt limit five times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Meet the real Mitt Romney, supported the Wall Street bailout putting America trillions in debt, raise the jobs killing taxes and fees by 700 million leaving Massachusetts over a billion in debt. His health care takeover, the blueprint for Obamacare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You get flavor of what's going on, Rich. A lot of people in Illinois will be seeing these ads. What do you think? Is it effectively a two-man race right now, Santorum, Romney, forget about Newt Gingrich or forget Ron Paul?

GALEN: It's a two-man race for Romney because he only has to fight a one-front war. Santorum has a two-front. I mean it's not a two-man race for him. He's got to fight Romney.

I think it was you that said this, somebody on the panel Tuesday night, they said as we go through the process, these negative ads I think have less and less effect, because everybody already knows these guys. It's not like at the beginning of the process where nobody knew that Newt, nobody knew that Santorum --

BLITZER: Do you think that's true? So these negative ads are a waste of money?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I love negative ads. I did not say it, probably somebody smarter than me. I agree with both Romney and Santorum. Who knew they were so smart? Rick Santorum did cast those votes --

BLITZER: You don't like either one?

BEGALA: -- full disclosure, I advise the pro-Obama "Super PAC," which is not raising ads now because they're doing our job for us. So I want to publicly thank -- not using Bill Maher money.

BLITZER: And you're not going to -- there's pressure to return that money though, right?

BEGALA: We're not going to do it. There's no need to. These "Super PACs" that the Republicans are running out there right now it's having a toll because it is pulling their candidates further and further to the right. Santorum has always been conservative, but Romney has moved --

GALEN: There is a growing sense at least here in Washington among the so-called intelligencia that it's time for Romney to start talking about why they need to vote for me, not vote for you. I'm not sure they -- BLITZER: The "Super PAC" ads are not positive, my guy is great -- but 99 percent of them negative.

GALEN: They've chosen to do that.

BLITZER: They could take the high road if they wanted to, but they decide it's more effective to go on these attacks.

GALEN: The Delta in Ohio is less than it should have been. The Delta in Michigan was less --

BLITZER: Explain what the Delta is to our viewers.

GALEN: The difference between what Romney thought he was going to get and what -- and whatever happened in Mississippi happened in Mississippi.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States. He was out in Ohio, what a surprise. In Ohio of all places and he was naming names. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Governor Romney was more direct, let Detroit go bankrupt. He said that. He said that what we propose, and I quote, "is even worse than bankruptcy," end of quote. He said it would make GM, quote, "the living dead."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, so what do you think about this role Joe Biden is going to be taking on. He's going to really be, shall we say, the pitbull.

BEGALA: But a happy warrior. You know, the best attackers are people who have a sense of sort of generosity of spirit. Ronald Reagan was one of the best negative campaigners ever because he wasn't a hater.

Joe Biden, even if you don't agree with him, I think he's one of the most gifted public leaders I've ever seen. In part because he can stick the knife in, but not look like a meanie --

Which I respect experience. I love Joe Biden. Thank God he's there. I think you'll see him in places like Ohio -- you know, he's the son of a car salesman. He is very much got a middle-class appeal.

He's a middle class guy. He's just old Joe, even though the second most powerful person in America. I love seeing him out there.

BLITZER: As a strategist, is it smart for them now, the Democrats, to really have Biden out there in a state like Ohio, which is a key battleground state, Obama-care, he did four years ago, as you remember. Is it smart to start naming names like this, even while the Republicans are fighting among themselves? GALEN: Exactly why, because Republicans are fighting among themselves. He can sort of help push that narrative forward. I think for them, for the Obama campaign, this is exactly the right time, and vice presidents get to do that.

BLITZER: Very quickly on Hillary Clinton, a woman you know well, the secretary of state. Maureen Dowd, you saw her column this week, among other things she wrote this in the "New York Times."

It would make the president seem weak, desperate and disloyal and get him a vice president who would pull focus and be a competitor. Besides, before he would go, Biden would handcuff himself to Bo.

The Republicans assault on women does, though, provide a glide path to the White House both for Obama in 2012 and Hillary in 2016. She was responding to the notion that maybe the president should dump Biden as his vice presidential running mate and put Hillary Clinton on the ticket to energize the base, energize women and get himself re- elected.

BEGALA: I cannot possibly imagine that. As my kids say, NHD, not happening dude. I'm a big fan of Maureen Dowd. She's a terrific writer, but that just not --

BLITZER: I have suggested that in my blog going back to October. That if the president is desperate and he sees this first term ending in a disaster, going down as a one-term president, he throws that Hail Mary pass in order to get a second term.

BEGALA: I think Maureen is right, it would look like desperation. His problems are not caused by Joe Biden and they're not going to be cured by Hillary Clinton. I don't think there's any chance -- save this tape, maybe I'm I look like an idiot, but I don't see this happen.

BLITZER: Do you think it will happen?

GALEN: No, I'm a huge fan of Hillary Clinton. I think this is it, she probably is done and wants to go do good works, much as Bill does.

BLITZER: And if she's not working in the government over the next four years, she can prepare for you know what. She'll only be 68 years old --

BEGALA: Host THE SITUATION ROOM?

BLITZER: She's welcome to. She can come here.

All right, guys, thank you. The top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod is speaking out about Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, and a lot more. CNN's Erin Burnett goes out front with David Axelrod. Erin is standing by to join us live.

And up next, our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he is here to talk about his brand new first novel, which is terrific and it's a surprising subject. Stick around. You do want to see this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We know him as our chief medical correspondent, but Dr. Sanjay Gupta is also a noted neurosurgeon, and also a best-selling author, his newest book just coming out this week entitled "Monday Mornings."

It's his first novel. Sanjay is joining us now from New York. Sanjay, congratulations. I've been reading your book, terrific, terrific stuff. But let's talk a bit about "Monday Mornings." Tell us first of all about the title. What does that mean?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well you know, I have this -- there's a meeting that takes place in hospitals where it's a sort of insiders only gathering of doctors, to discuss errors that have occurred, mistakes that may have been made.

I place that meeting on Monday mornings. I also use the title in part, Wolf, because I think it's -- you know, you think about Monday morning quarterbacking. It's the time for a reflection. When a mistake occurs, if there's not something that's learned from it, that's even a worse crime.

Monday mornings are a time, you know, things can begin again so it's more of an aspiration title. That's where the title came from -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You review some of the mistakes that have been made. And we all know everyone is human, including great doctors, nurses, health care professional, they make mistakes. Give us an example of what might be the worst mistake in the medical profession you can bring up.

GUPTA: Well, you know, certainly you hear about dramatic ones. For example, someone operating on the wrong side of someone's brain, for example, and, you know, you sort of dissect a mistake like that down and find perhaps in a situation where it was a trauma.

Things are moving quickly and someone may have hung up the CT scans backwards on a light board and therefore, this sort of mistake occurred, those are terrible mistakes.

But I think the worst types of mistakes, Wolf, like in any profession are probably the ones that just show a degree of recklessness by a doctor or surgeon in a situation or a degree where they didn't display compassion of some sort.

Those are hard to swallow, I think, for anybody. I've attended meetings like these for 20 years, I think those are tough, when you hear a story like that presented in one of these meetings, it makes everyone a little -- take a breath, I think.

BLITZER: You know, someone reading your book, and readings the mistakes could say I don't want to go into a hospital, I'm nervous about all these mistakes. Did that cross your mind in writing this novel? GUPTA: Well, you know, I think that there are no questions that mistakes have been talked about long before this novel came out. There's an Institute of Medicine report, Wolf, as you may know back this 1999 that gave us startling numbers. Saying, look, that it's up to 100,000 deaths a year could be caused by medical mistakes.

Over the last several years, new studies have shown the number could be even much higher than that. So I think the idea that medical mistakes occur and you know, the harm has incurred as a result of that, that is not new.

I think what -- what I really wanted to show here is what happens after that? What happens in a hospital? What happens to these doctors? What's the next step? How do people learn from these mistakes?

You know, we call medicine a practice still, and people joke about that, but there is a feeling that you know, if a mistake occurs, if you don't learn from it, then you know, medicine and science don't progress forward as they should.

BLITZER: I love the fact, Sanjay, that you're out promoting your book as you should be doing and you even went on "Fox & Friends" this week to promote the book. You had this exchange, I'll play it for our viewers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You conduct this question if you want, but if you had a choice between hanging out with Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer, who would you choose?

GUPTA: Wolfman, every single time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I love that. Thank you so much. I don't know about Anderson Cooper, but I would rather hang out with you than Anderson Cooper, too. Let me be honest with you. Thanks so much for that.

GUPTA: There's a different side of Wolf Blitzer that people don't get to see. I want to go out with you and experience that one time, Wolf.

BLITZER: Are you going to be promoting the book in Washington, D.C.?

GUPTA: I'm going to try to. But, you know what, aside from promoting the book, I just would love to just go out and have a meal with you, break some bread.

BLITZER: All right, as soon as I write my book, and I haven't even started writing it yet, I'm going to count on you to promote it. I'll count on Roger Ailes to promote it on Fox as well. I would be happy to go on "Fox & Friends."

Thanks very much for that. Congratulations. Let me put the book, jack it on the screen one more time. "Monday Mornings," it's an excellent novel. I want everyone to go out and buy a copy as soon as possible.

Sanjay Gupta, MD, excellent writer, excellent neurosurgeon, all-around great guy. Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: An ominous warning today from Homeland Security, could last weeks -- could last week's mass killing in Afghanistan trigger violence right here in the United States.

And Obama adviser, David Axelrod on the hot seat over the Rush Limbaugh controversy, is there a coarsening of the political discourse. Erin Burnett is standing by live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's the conversation that won't go away. Watch this exchange between Erin Burnett and Obama campaign adviser, David Axelrod.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN'S "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": Let me ask you one more question, and this is important especially in light of the Rush Limbaugh controversy about Sandra Fluke, when he called her a slut on his radio show.

Bill Maher, of course, has used a "c" word to refer to Sarah Palin. He has used some other very unflattering words like bimbo to also refer to Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

He also gave a million dollars, of course, to the super PAC, which is set up to re-elect Barack Obama. To be consistent, should that super PAC give the money back to Bill Maher?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: Well, first of all, let me say I don't think -- there's been a coarsening of our political culture. I don't think that language is appropriate, no matter who uses it.

I think whoever you are in politics you ought to be willing to say so. I was disappointed that Governor Romney didn't stand up more forcefully when Rush Limbaugh said what he said, but understand these words that Maher has used in his stand-up act are a bit different than -- not excusable in any way.

But different than a guy with 23 million radio listeners using his broadcast platform to malign a young woman for speaking her mind in the most inappropriate, grotesque ways.

And nor does Bill Maher play the role in the Democratic Party that Rush Limbaugh plays in the Republican Party where he's really the de facto boss of the party. Everybody responds to him, which is why I think Governor Romney was afraid to take him on.

BURNETT: It's interesting, I see your point that Sandra Fluke is not a public figure and Sarah Palin is, but you know, as a woman who is a public figure, I certainly if someone called me a "C" --

AXELROD: Listen, Erin, I do not excuse those kinds of characterizations of women. I don't think those kind of gratuitous nasty words about anyone is appropriate in the public sphere. I'm not excusing anyone, but I think what Limbaugh did was particularly egregious.

It wasn't just once. He built on it and built on it to the point where he -- he built into sort of a perverse (inaudible) at the end, you know, whether she should post her relationships online.

BURNETT: I know, I was disgusted.

AXELROD: There's no excuse for that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Erin is joining us now. Good interview, Erin, looking forward to see the whole thing later tonight, 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Did he ever flatly saying, as Paul Begala, who is directly involved in that pro-Obama "Super PAC," fat chance.

They're not returning it. Axelrod is not directly involved in the "Super PAC." He's directly involved in the official campaign for the president's reelection.

BURNETT: I went on to ask that question. Of course, he did try to take that out, as you would imagine, Wolf, to say, well, I'm not involved in the "Super PAC," in fact I haven't talked to Bill Burton, who's running the "Super PAC," for a year.

So I'm not the one making that decision. It does seem, Wolf, that this whole I guess figure leaf that they have put on to whether you're saying something vile about a woman, whether she's a public or a private figure that there is a real inconsistency there.

It does seem that they're going to have to be giving more answers -- more answers on that question. But, yes, there are some follow-up on that exact issue and Mr. Axelrod does not want to go there.

BLITZER: The other thing that's been out there. He was supposed to be on Bill Maher's show, but he decided not to appear on the show because of all of this. Did you get into that with him?

BURNETT: Well, he -- I have seen that as well, Wolf. We did not actually talk about whether he had denied to go on to Bill Maher's show. But I think the real issue here that seems to be so difficult, when you walk out on this limb, as they have, and said that Rush Limbaugh is the boss of the party.

And it's so awful he said these things, I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that what was said was insulting and inappropriate, but then to avoid being hypocritical, you do have to be consistent. I think Paul Begala is right. There are still more questions to be answered on that front. BLITZER: Thanks very much, Erin. We'll be watching your show at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN.

The last time was in the NCAA tournament, Harry Truman was president of the United States, but now Harvard hoops are hot. The Crimson pride is bursting. Stand by. That at the top of the hour.

A special report on a new FBI warning of possible violence in the United States in retaliation for the massacre of Afghan civilians.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack's back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour -- should campaign fundraisers be invited to White House state dinners for foreign dignitaries.

Gary in California says, "Of course not, but this is a symptom of a greater problem. We have a representative democracy, and we allow our representatives to accept bribes in the form of contributions. If they're willing to display this kind of quid pro quo in public, can you imagine what they'll do in private?

Beat in Georgia writes, "The level of corrupt fundraising raising hundreds of millions of dollars for a job that pays an ego maniac politician about $400,000 a year has been elevated to the point where honest, decent working-class citizens can no longer comprehend or even imagine how dirty it all is, beyond shameful, beyond disgusting."

Eugene writes, "No, let these suck ups and political insiders meet in a convention hall. I have a chest full of combat medals. I'm in constant pain and can hardly walk for the rest of my life. I've never been invited to the White House. Like the saying goes, money talks."

Larry in Texas says, "The administration is cutting off its nose to spite its face with this kind of aloof, arrogant behavior. Basketball games and state dinners ought to be canceled until our bills are paid."

David in Las Vegas writes, "This is way too important a question for the American people to decide. It ought to be left to the Supreme Court."

And Bob in Ohio says, "Why not? If the prime minister of another country can be made a little more friendly by meeting a celebrity donor at dinner then go for it. As long as it's not Gary Busey or Randy Quaid."

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. For the first time in 66 years, Harvard is in the NCAA basketball tournament, catching even some Harvard students, a lot of them, I must say, by surprise. CNN's Mary Snow is joining us now. Mary, how is March Madness playing on campus?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, when former Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg was creating Facebook in his Cambridge days, he probably never thought one of the most popular uses for it among Harvard undergraduates this past semester would be looking for basketball tickets.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): It wasn't long ago that the most famous basketball playing Harvard alum resided in the White House. Then Linsanity struck.

In February, New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin catapulted to the top of his alma mater's basketball history making Harvard hoops cool. And now there's this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Harvard and the champions of the Ivy League with reason to celebrate.

SNOW: For the first time in 66 years, the men's basketball team is in the NCAA tournament, and Crimson pride runs deep.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I'll be rooting for Harvard, but it's just too much of a stretch.

SNOW: Even Harvard's bookworms are taking notice.

KEITH WRIGHT, HARVARD SENIOR FORWARD: You see students giving you high-fives, telling you good luck, and congratulations, and these are people you've never talked to before, never seen before.

SNOW: That's what Coach Tommy Amaker was hoping for when the (inaudible) arrived in Cambridge in 2007 with a mission for his recruits.

TOMMY AMAKER, HARVARD HEAD COACH: Why not be a game changer? That's what our school has been known for in many different ways, to change the game, to think outside the box, to be different, to literally change the world.

SNOW: Harvard has certainly done that by producing eight U.S. presidents, but the future politicians and world leaders shared this ivy-covered campus with a mediocre basketball team until now.

KYLE CASEY, HARVARD JUNIOR FORWARD: It's really humbling that we could achieve something here that has never been done before, when so many things have been done before.

SNOW (on camera): Harvard students aren't used to all this March Madness in stuff and they got little chance to celebrate when the team finally made the tournament last week. That's because they're in the middle of doing what they are used to, studying for midterms.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I heard, because it was talked about, and everybody where on campus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All I could sigh is I didn't expect to go to a school with big basketball. It's been fun.

SNOW: Have you heard any rumblings about the NCAA tournament?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My bad. Not really.

SNOW: Would it be fair to say before a couple weeks ago you didn't care about basketball?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's probably true.

SNOW: And now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now, yes, let's go to March Madness.

SNOW (voice-over): Sports could be as fickle as politics. The Crimson's fortune could be even more fleeting, with just one loss sending them back to campus. With that team on the map at Harvard yard, courting future players may not be as hard.

AMAKER: At the end of the day, what we always tell them is the worst thing that happens here is you become a Harvard graduate. That's not too bad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Wolf, as much of a Harvard Crimson fan President Obama maybe, when the president was filling out his bracket, he didn't pick Harvard to win in their first round game against Vanderbilt.

BLITZER: Yes, I did, because I'm going for the Cinderella. Let's see if Harvard can go all the way. Mary, thanks very much very much.