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THE SITUATION ROOM

Presidential Candidates Prepare to Debate; Republican Voter Registration Fraud in Florida?

Aired October 1, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Only 36 days until the presidential election, two days until debate night in America, when Mitt Romney and President Obama will face off in Denver.

And the race is tight, in fact, a statistical tie. The president leads in our brand-new CNN/ORC poll of likely voters 50 percent to Romney's 47 percent. But with the sampling error, that's technically a dead heat.

CNN's chief national correspondent, John King, is in Denver with more on these new poll results.

John, when's the biggest headline as you're scrutinizing all of these numbers? What are you seeing?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the biggest headline is we have a very competitive race at the national level.

We pick presidents state by state. We will talk about that in a minute, but this is a slightly improved position for Governor Romney heading in to the big debate night and this is the defining question. The American people want to know which candidate would better handle the economy, which candidate would create more jobs in the next of four years of whoever wins the presidency.

On that question, look at the numbers in our new poll. President Obama 49 percent, governor Romney 48 percent when the voters are asked who would best to handle the economy? The voters are evenly divided. The economy and domestic policy will dominate the opening debate here in Denver on Wednesday night. The numbers right there, a dead heat in the national horse race and a dead heat on who would handle the economy best question underscore exactly what this big debate is all about.

BLITZER: John, what is the bonus takeaway out of this for each campaign?

KING: If you look at this race, we know it's very close right now. In very close races, the old adage goes that American politics in close races are won in the middle. Look at this for the president, he gets liberals. Governor Romney the conservatives.

But among those who describe themselves as moderates, almost a 2- 1 advantage for President Obama, 61 percent for the president, 32 percent for Romney. In the suburbs, that matters. A lot of moderate suburban voters in states like Colorado and in states like Ohio and Virginia. Moderate suburban voters tend to decide close elections.

That's an advantage for the president heading in to the big debate and into the final five weeks of the campaign. Here's an opening for Romney, though, Wolf, and why the debate is so important. When people are asked if they like the president, they say yes. When they're asked about his handling of his job the past three years, look at the divide, 49 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove.

Governor Romney's job is to prosecute his case on the economy in the debate to see if can he drive up the disapproval of the incumbent president's job performance. The president standing on the job approval question has come down a little bit in our new poll. Governor Romney's job Wednesday night if he is to take momentum in this race is to make it even worse.

BLITZER: John, the national polls are always obviously interesting but this is going to come down to a few battleground states. How's the polling looking in some of these states?

KING: And that is why it's so important for the governor to have a strong performance because he's slightly behind in the race right now. It's very competitive.

But let's go through some of the big states. This is our CNN poll of polls. We take several polls in each of these battleground and average them together. Look at the state of Ohio, no Republican in modern times has won the presidency without Ohio, 51 percent for President Obama and 44 percent for Governor Romney.

Look at the state of Florida. Always a big battleground, 50 percent for the president, 45 percent for Governor Romney. And the battleground state of Virginia, the president turned it from red to blue four years ago, 49 percent for President Obama, 45 percent for Governor Romney.

Ohio, Florida and Virginia all on the must win list for the Romney campaign. You see he's behind a bit in all three of them, not insurmountable, Wolf, but it underscores yet again how he needs a national shift in the narrative of this race. His best opportunity is that debate Wednesday night.

BLITZER: Yes. A little bit -- about 48 hours or so from now, a little bit more. All right, John, thanks very much.

The candidates are meticulously preparing for the first debate Wednesday night in Denver.

Kate Bolduan is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, as always. Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is following Mitt Romney right now.

But first let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

How's the president, Jessica, preparing for this big night 48 hours or so from now? JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he's flown out to Henderson, Nevada, where he's mostly hunkered down. Henderson is a suburb of Las Vegas. He's out there with some of his top strategists for three days of intensive debate prep.

I caught up with Senator John Kerry. He's the man who's playing Mitt Romney in the mock debates and he helped explain why the president had to leave Washington, D.C., to get ready for Wednesday's rumble.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, the president's the president. He was at the U.N. giving two major speeches.

He's been dealing with all sorts of international business, domestic business. He is at the White House a lot of the time preparing. And I can tell you that his -- they have had to cancel times when he might or might not have been able to do a preparation.

It's my understanding Mitt Romney spent four or five days secluded somewhere, had five debates in 24 hours or 48 hours, and has Senator Portman with him every day on the airplane practicing. I'm here. I'm not traveling with the president. I'm not doing any of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: More expectations-setting from Senator Kerry, but also making the point that being the job of president gets in the way of debate prep so leaving town and leaving Washington helps for the president and it doesn't hurt, Wolf, that he picked a battleground state, Nevada, to do his debate prep. He will be going to other states for future debate prep.

BLITZER: Not too far from Denver, either.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not too far from Denver. It's an easy jump over.

We're also learning new details about how Mitt Romney's preparing for his first face-to-face contest with the president.

Dana Bash has been tracking the Romney preparations.

What new detail are we learning about how Mitt Romney is preparing for this big debate?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John Kerry is right according to our sources that he, Mitt Romney, has been studying and reading for months.

He actually did have his first mock debate during the Democratic Convention. He talked about Romney being held up. He was in Vermont. But here's a fun fact, Kate. Romney has, of course, had many, many debates this campaign season and participated in 20-plus debates during the Republican primaries.

But this is the first time he's done this kind of role playing in the form of mock debates and I'm told that they have done their best to create what one Romney source called game day atmospherics.

There's a moderator played by his longtime aide Peter Flaherty, who sits exactly where the moderator will sit, two podiums, Mitt Romney at one. You heard John Kerry refer to Republican Senator Rob Portman in the other. He is playing the role of President Obama just like he did for John McCain four years ago.

And I talked to Senator Portman in an exclusive interview about how he prepares to prepare Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: You have to figure out how they're likely to express themselves, you know, what the body language is like. You don't try to imitate the person but you try to give a fair presentation to whoever you're working with as to what they're likely to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: I tried to do a little role play with him. I prepared to be Mitt Romney and to see how he was Barack Obama.

BOLDUAN: Did he play along?

BASH: No. Didn't go there.

BLITZER: Portman would have like to have been I'm sure the vice presidential nominee, but he gets to at least play the president in these preparations.

BOLDUAN: He's now key to the campaign.

BLITZER: Jessica, what does the president need to do this in debate?

YELLIN: First, do no harm. No gaffes, obviously.

Second, he has to seem obviously presidential, down to earth, substantive, but not professorial, all at once. That's a high hurdle. And, third, crucially, make sure he doesn't come across as thin- skinned or arrogant when he faces the inevitable attacks from Romney. That's challenging obviously for a sitting president. They're not often confronted with somebody directly attacking them as you know and it's going to be hard not to seem irritable when that happens.

BLITZER: But there's rules in this debate. You can answer for a minute or two minutes and that's hard for this president. He has got long answers.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Keep it down to a little bit more than a sound bite.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Exactly.

Dana, we have seen -- especially in the primaries, we saw Mitt Romney perform very well in debates. But it's pretty fair to say that this is a whole new ball game for him.

BASH: It's completely different. He was standing on the stage with Wolf at many of those with half a dozen or more people. One on one with anybody, especially the president of the United States, is a completely different ball game. His aides know that very well.

What somebody I talked to who's very close to the process said is the key thing he has to do is stay on offense and make clear as much he possibly can that this is about economy. We have obviously seen him do that for the entire campaign season on the stump but to do it in front of the president is different.

One thing that I know you all were talking to Paul Begala about in the last hour was about the fact there is this "New York Times" story saying that they're practicing zingers and one liners to try to get under the president's skin. I'm told that that might have been a head fake to try to let the Obama campaign think that's what he's doing.

BOLDUAN: Quite a bit of that, obviously.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: A lot of psychological warfare going on.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We will see the debate Wednesday night.

BOLDUAN: Let's just debate.

BLITZER: And we will have a good time. We will watch it and see all these psychological games they're playing.

Ladies, thanks very much.

This Wednesday is debate night in America, the first showdown between Governor Romney and President Obama. We will have much more from Jessica Yellin's interview with John Kerry, Dana Bash's interview with Rob Portman.

Our special coverage of the first presidential debate starts Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN and on CNN.com.

Disturbing developments in a state with a troubled voting history, details of possible registration fraud in Florida. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Hanging Chads, butterfly ballots, words we all came to recognize in the Florida voting debacle of 2000 in the election of that year.

Now there are allegations of voter registration fraud in multiple Florida counties, including Palm Beach County.

CNN's David Mattingly is working the story for us.

David, what are you finding out?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one company hired by the Republican Party to register new voters is now under the microscope here in Florida after suspicious voter registration forms are popping up all over the state.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY (voice-over): For anyone, the right to vote begins with a registration form like this. And when scores of forms came in to Florida's Palm Beach County elections supervisor filled out wrong, missing information, looking like they had been signed by the same person, officials moved quickly.

SUSAN BUCHER, PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA, ELECTIONS SUPERVISOR: I found that there were some consistent discrepancies.

MATTINGLY: What kind of discrepancies?

BUCHER: Well, in some places they were trying to register voters to commercial addresses. One of them was registering a couple to a gas station in Miami.

MATTINGLY: In all, 106 suspected registration forms of a single employee of Strategic Allied Consulting hired by the Republican Party were examined. To the supervisor's surprise, only a half dozen were correct.

BUCHER: It's very disconcerting.

MATTINGLY: Strategic Allied Consulting says the employee was fired. The Republican Party also dropped Strategic. A company statement today says, "We will continue to do everything within our power to uncover any unethical or illegal activity in Florida."

But possible irregularities involving registration forms collected by Strategic Allied Consulting are now being examined in about 10 Florida counties, 2,600 registration forms just in the Panhandle, a traditional Republican stronghold. But for now, Florida is the only state reporting problems with registration forms gathered by Strategic Allied Consulting.

The company came under scrutiny by Colorado Republicans after the problems in Florida and after this Colorado video hit YouTube.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said that we're only registering Romney people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're trying to, to be honest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you're working for the county's office?

MATTINGLY: Confronted by Democratic poll officials, the young woman identified by state Republican officials as an employee of Strategic Allied Consulting said she was working for the county clerk, but registering only Republicans.

State Republicans say the company has been dropped in Colorado.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: Officials here in Palm Beach County say they're not going to be satisfied with just looking at the forms that have been handled by that one company. In fact, they're going to be looking at everything that's been changed over the past couple of months.

They're going to be looking at 60,000 voter registration forms here in the office behind me just as a firewall to make sure that this problem isn't any more widespread than they already think it is -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Could there be criminal charges as a result of all of this, David?

MATTINGLY: Very likely it could be because this is a class three felony here in the state of Florida. Every single count carries the potential penalty of five years in prison. If someone's actually convicted of messing up with multiple forms here, they could be looking at a very long time behind bars.

BLITZER: David Mattingly on top of this story for us, thanks very much. We will stay on top of it.

It's very disturbing, what is going on, especially when you think about the history of Palm Beach County.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

BLITZER: Those hanging chads in Florida back in the year 2000.

BOLDUAN: Definitely not the last we have heard of this story, that's for sure, absolutely not.

BLITZER: No.

BOLDUAN: Still ahead, it's the last thing you would expect to happen on an airline flight, details of the seat surprise that forced an American jet to make an emergency landing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK) BLITZER: He dismantles President Obama's foreign policy country by country. We will talk to a supporter of each man who wants to be president of the United States. One of them already is president of the United States. We will talk about Mitt Romney's scathing opinion article today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The turmoil in the Middle East certainly has put foreign policy and national security front and center in the race for the White House.

BOLDUAN: Yes. That's absolutely right, Wolf.

Mitt Romney's blasting President Obama on his foreign policy. In a "Wall Street Journal" op-ed that really caught our attention, the Republican nominee writes this in part: "In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power and the country's peace treaty with Israel hangs in the balance. In Libya, our ambassador was murdered in a terrorist attack. U.S. embassies throughout the region have been stormed in violent protests and in Iran the ayatollahs continue to move full-tilt toward nuclear weapons capability, all the while promising to annihilate Israel."

BLITZER: Let's talk about this with two guests, the former NATO supreme allied commander and Obama campaign surrogate General Wesley Clark and Richard Williamson, a veteran diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.

General Clark, let me start with you. You saw in that quote from the article in "The Wall Street Journal," which I'm sure you wrote -- that, as far as Syria is concerned, tens of thousands have been slaughtered. Here's the question. What's the president doing about the slaughter that continues right now in Syria?

WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, the first question is, what is it that Mr. Romney proposes doing? That's what's missing...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But the question to you, General, with all respect...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: ... what's the president -- the president of the United States doing -- Romney wants to be president, but the president is the president.

CLARK: The president's working with allies in the region to try to provide humanitarian assistance, working with political groups to try to form a legitimate and a recognized political opposition, working with others to try to hold down the delivery of heavy weapons to the region, working with other allies that are providing some assistance and some information on who the Syrian resistance leaders are.

So it's humanitarian, it's political, it's diplomatic. It's everything we can do short of using military force. I'm sure the military options have been looked at. An air campaign has been looked at, taking out all the ground defense. Ground intervention has been looked at.

Both those are major military operations. They involve war. They don't have -- they don't have strong support from NATO allies. It's more go it alone for the United States. And they don't seem to be that effective in addressing the underlying problem there.

(CROSSTALK)

CLARK: I think the president's approach is pretty commonsense. It's been very forward. He's taken the lead on this, but it's not military yet.

BOLDUAN: Now, Ambassador Williamson, you advise Governor Romney. What would a President Romney do right now with regard to Syria? Would he take unilateral action?

RICHARD WILLIAMSON, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: Well, no.

It's not required to take unilateral action. The Arab League has already called for more robust efforts. There are a number of European states. It interesting. General Wesley Clark led the successful Kosovo engagement.

In that situation, President Clinton did not allow the U.N. Security Council to bind our hands and bring humanitarian relief. But President Obama has been playing mother may I with the Russians and with China on what we can do in Syria.

And anyone who's studied the U.N., anyone who's spent time there, as I have in various ambassadorial posts, knows that Russia was not going to let us go forward to take robust or strong action.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a minute.

Ambassador Williamson, I want to hear if you can tell us, what would Romney do differently than what the president is doing right now?

WILLIAMSON: Sure.

First of all, it was almost a year ago when Governor Romney called for us to go in and try to organize the moderate opposition. It is true, as General Clark said, that President Obama has now approved it, but it took him until late May. By that time, various radical forces had already gone in and made it much more complicated. Early this year, Governor Romney called for arming the moderate opposition, working with our friends in the region. President Obama at the time said, no.

But in late May, he signed a presidential directive to do that. Again, it's -- the options are less because we haven't had leadership. We're not working effectively with the neighborhood. And the consequence of letting mother may I with the U.N., letting us be late, letting us be indecisive is that 30,000-plus people have died, and it is a tragedy.

BLITZER: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAMSON: And it's destabilizing the region. And you have 100,000 refugees now in Turkey.

BLITZER: But I'm not hearing any major differences between the Romney campaign and the Obama White House right now as far as to what you'd do next. I understand the criticism from the past, but I'm not hearing any new steps that you would take. Am I missing something?

WILLIAMSON: I think you are, Wolf. You've covered that region for a long time. You were a correspondent in Israel a long time ago. You know it takes time and diplomatic effort to pull coalitions together. And to lead and anticipate, and that's what Governor Romney's laid out. That's what President Obama's failed to do. There's a huge difference between that.

Furthermore, another example is the U.N. General Assembly should have been utilized by the president for bilateral meetings with heads of state in the region to coordinate the diplomatic initiative. Instead he went and appeared on Whoopi Goldberg.

BOLDUAN: Now, General Clark, I want to push you on this one issue, because Governor Romney, in his op-ed, he was also very critical of President Obama and his position and his approach to Egypt right now. Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, and President Obama took a lot of heat a couple of weeks ago when he said that he didn't -- he didn't consider Egypt an ally; he did not consider Egypt an enemy. So which is it?

CLARK: Well, Egypt is a -- legal status, it's a major non-NATO ally. That's its legal status. That allows us to give military assistance to Egypt.

The Egyptian regime is evolving; it's putting in place its policies. We hope they'll continue the same policies in the past. They said they'll honor the treaty that Anwar Sadat negotiated with Menachem Begin under President Carter's leadership in 1978. They say they'll keep their alignment the same. We're hopeful that they will.

But I want to go back for just a second to the criticisms on Syria, if you'll permit me to do that. BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

CLARK: The only thing I heard was a discussion about timing and yet, if you look at timing, as soon as we -- we immediately began to look for the leadership of the Syrian opposition and when we found them, we began to deal with them. On the weapons issue...

WILLIAMSON: That's not true.

CLARK: Of course, at the first spark of conflict, the right thing to do is not to dump weapons into a conflict zone. It's to try to prevent the conflict, because any time you have a bunch of weapons coming in, you're going to have a lot of innocent people killed. So the decision was made to put the weapons in when it was clear that there was no alternative to that.

As far as the U.N. Security Council resolution's concerned, I just want to remind people that we did have a U.N. Security Council resolution, UNSC-R1199, in the coastal operation. It wasn't quite exact. It said nations can use all necessary means to deal with the humanitarian crisis, and Slobodan Milosevic provoked the humanitarian crisis.

Now, this doesn't mean we won't go into Syria, but it's more a matter of finding the effective course of action.

And what the Republican side hasn't been able to do is to articulate what is that effective course of action? Is it a major invasion of Syria at this stage? Is it a takedown of their entire military air defense complex to throw the ground open for other? What is that course of action?

BLITZER: But I take it the answer from Ambassador Williamson, the short answer, that would be no. You're not proposing any of those steps right now, right?

WILLIAMSON: I'm not proposing those things, nor am I accepting General Clark's rewriting of history. It was -- the conflict began in March. Governor Romney proposed reaching out and working with the opposition in the fall. He talked about trying to arm the moderate opposition in February. That was 11, 12 months after it began. There was dilly-dallying by the Obama administration as the innocents died.

So I appreciate the conceptual framework that General Clark laid out. The facts in this case just don't meet it.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. We have much more to discuss. Our panel is not going away. We're going to talk also about a call for the United States ambassador to the United Nations to resign over what he said about the deadly attack on that American consulate in Libya.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Dramatic fallout from the attack on the American consulate in Libya that's killed the United States ambassador and three other Americans.

BOLDUAN: A powerful Republican Congressman is calling on the U.S. ambassador to the United States -- Nations to resign. That's Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. It all started when Susan Rice made remarks five days after those attacks. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: There was a hateful video that was disseminated on the Internet. It had nothing to do with the United States government, and it's one that we find disgusting and reprehensible. It's been offensive to many, many people around the world. That sparked violence in various parts of the world, including violence directed against western facilities including our embassies and consulates.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: The Obama administration eventually labeled the attack on that consulate in Libya terrorism. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, thinks there should be consequences to Rice's original comments that you heard right there.

Here's what he said to Wolf in THE SITUATION ROOM Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R-NY), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE (via phone): To rule out terrorism, to say it was not terrorism at that time was a, to me, a terrible mistake to make, whether it was done intentionally or unintentionally, and to show the significance to that, I believe she should resign, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring back the former NATO supreme allied commander and Obama campaign supporter General Wesley Clark and Rich Williamson, a former diploma, a veteran diplomat, former and currently a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign.

Rich, do you agree with -- do you agree with the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Peter King, that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, should resign?

WILLIAMSON: Look, I feel that it was a big mistake for our U.N. ambassador to go out five days after the attack and still do a line which wasn't credible. But I'm not -- it's not my position to advise Congressman King or the administration on personnel.

I think what's disturbing is this happened on 9/11. There were no demonstrations outside the Benghazi consulate. It's now coming out that there was inadequate security protection there. And the effort to be dismissive of it as just a spontaneous demonstration because of this video was either disingenuous or very, very confused. And either case is bad. And then the president shot before he aimed. He was calling it a consequence of this video.

Look, we had demonstrations in 20 embassies around the world. We had four that were breached. The American flag brought down and burned. And al Qaeda-like black flag raised on four different diplomatic posts. It was a disgrace, and the president called it a bump in the road. It's not. It's a serious problem that shows the failure of the Middle East policy and the live terror threat and that al Qaeda continues to be a threat to America.

BLITZER: What about that, General Clark? Susan Rice and other administration officials, they seem to be slow to appreciate what a lot of folks immediately suspected on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. This was an al Qaeda-related terror attack.

CLARK: Oh, we all thought it was kind of odd that these demonstrators have RPG and machines with them. And that was an indicator that we had to do more research. The administration started doing that right away.

But you have to understand also we'd lost our ambassador. And when you lose the top leadership in the embassy in something like this, it just doesn't have no impact. And so, there were a lot of other considerations at the time than simply how to label this.

So I think -- you know, I don't think Susan Rice should bear any consequences for this. This is an intelligence matter. The intelligence people have to sort through what their source are and Susan Rice doesn't have any independent source of this. Neither did the president. They're all relying on the intelligence that comes in.

So, you know -- and we've got -- we've had excellent intelligence. But I will make this point about Libya. From the beginning we knew that there were radical elements in Benghazi. We knew that Libyans heavy participants in al Qaeda and other battles in Afghanistan. And we knew that, in aiding the Libyan transitional government, there was also a risk that in Gadhafi's absence these radical elements would have an outsized impact and be a threat in the region.

BOLDUAN: General Clark, let me jump in real quick.

CLARK: Just a minute. It was the Republicans' wing, Paul Wolfowitz, my friend and others, who from the beginning were urging rapid intervention. I think the administration both in Libya and in Syria's following a very sensible policy of trying to get the politics and the strategy right before dumping weapons and military assistance...

BOLDUAN: Right. But in terms of -- but in terms of how this played out, this timeline, it's gotten a lot of coverage that Susan Rice was out, five days after this attack, and speaking very consistently for the administration and was moving -- saying that this was a reaction to a spontaneous protest that was occurring. Did the administration make some mistakes here in how they handled this -- the early days of the aftermath of this attack on this consulate?

CLARK: Well, first of all, I don't think that the attacks on the consulate or these demonstrations in the other countries are a repudiation of U.S. policy. If anything, what they indicate is the struggles in the countries as they're trying to democratize, as their citizens get more freedom and they've got more responsibility and...

BOLDUAN: Right. But can you acknowledge that they made a mistake in how they handled it afterwards?

CLARK: You know, it's a -- is it a mistake if your opposition says it's a mistake? I mean, the best evidence indicated at the time that it wasn't a terrorist attack, despite the fact that there was suspicious indicators.

And instead of jumping to the conclusion that it was a terrorist attack, the administration said, let's see the evidence that it was a terrorist attack. I don't think there's anything wrong with asking for evidence before you jump to a conclusion on something like this.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to leave it -- we've got to leave it, guys. Rich Williamson, a quick question. Will we see a major foreign policy address from Governor Romney in the next few days?

WILLIAMSON: This month you'll hear the governor lay out a different view than Barack Obama.

Barack Obama thinks that strength is -- that strength is provocative. Governor Romney knows weakness is provocative. They have a different vision of how to pursue and protect U.S. interests. And that will be increasingly clear. And their stonewalling in the Benghazi tragedy is evidence of a foreign policy that's collapsing through the broader Middle East, and the American people know that.

BLITZER: The month is just beginning. So the next few days, will there be a major foreign policy address by Mitt Romney?

WILLIAMSON: There will be -- there will be -- the governor will be discussing foreign policy in a variety of ways just like he did in the "Wall Street Journal" today when he talked about Syria, the Benghazi incident, the violence in -- with four embassies were breached, the collapse, the failure of foreign policy under Barack Obama and his vision of one that's built on a strong economy, strong defense and American values.

BLITZER: Rich Williamson, thanks very much. Wesley Clark, thanks to you, as well -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

Presidential contest turned upside by a so-called October surprise. We'll take a look at what a sudden twist can do in the final weeks of a campaign.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOLDUAN: CNN's just confirmed a second incident of seats aboard an American Airlines flight coming loose. Our Sandra Endo has been tracking this and is here with new details. Sandra, what are you learning?

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, a American Airlines flight from JFK to Miami had to return to JFK this morning after a row of seats came loose.

Now, this is the second plane to experience this. Saturday, a Boeing 757 going from Boston to Miami carrying 175 passengers diverted to New York's JFK airport when three seats in row 12 came loose shortly after takeoff.

The plane landed safely and no injuries were reported but just moments ago, American issued a statement saying, quote, "There could be a possible issue with a certain model of seats and how they fit into the tracking used to secure the seat. Out of an abundance of caution American has decided to proactively reinspect eight 757s today that could possibly have this same issue. The issue does not seem to be tied in any one maintenance facility or one workgroup."

Now, we contacted the pilots' union for American Airlines, and they said Saturday's incident is, quote, "an embarrassing problem" and that an overhaul of the plane involved was performed by third- party maintenance workers.

American is already going through a turbulent time with pilots calling in sick and more maintenance orders coming in. And they are ranking at the top of the list of major carriers when it comes to the number of flight cancellations and delays.

This is not the kind of news they or their passengers wanted to hear right now.

Sandra Endo, thanks so much for that update.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Thirty-six days until the election, and you don't have to look that far into the past to see that anything can happen in these final weeks of the campaign. And we're all wondering, will there be an October surprise? Here's CNN's congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Election year 1972. The raging unpopular war in Vietnam consumed the bitter campaign battle between President Nixon and George McGovern. Suddenly, on October 26, 12 days before the election, Vietnam negotiator Henry Kissinger made a surprise declaration, to cement Nixon's frontrunner status. HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe that peace is at hand.

BASH: It was the first so-called October surprise, a late-in- the-game campaign event with a significant impact on the election.

ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: In order to win re- election for Nixon in 1972, they needed an end to the Vietnam War, and this was sort of the definitive statement.

BASH: The most famous October surprise was in 1980, and the surprise was what did not happen. Fifty-two U.S. hostages held in Iran were not released before the election, despite President Carter's efforts. Instead, they were freed as soon as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, setting off Democratic suspicions, never proven, that Reagan emissaries back-channeled with Iran to delay freeing the hostages and denied the troubled Carter campaign a huge pre-election boost.

DALLEK: It fed into the whole dynamic of the 1980 race and the sense that Carter was a stumbling, ineffective president.

BASH: Fast forward to 1992. President George H.W. Bush was already on the ropes against Bill Clinton over a sluggish economy when Casper Weinberger, former President Ronald Reagan's defense secretary, was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal shortly before election day. Bad news that Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president, did not need.

In 2004, a classic October surprise. Osama bin Laden released a video on October 29, just four days before election day, in a razor- thin race between President Bush and Kerry. Three years after 9/11, it served as a reminder of the terrorist threat, and strategists in both parties believed helped President Bush.

More recently, the term "October surprise" has come to mean a seismic event in the fall of an election year. Though most have centered around foreign policy, others have been about the economy like in 2008. When the economy imploded, John McCain's advisers say his campaign collapsed along with it and never recovered.

Historians say in order for an October surprise to have a real 11th hour impact, it has the feed into a narrative that exists. Whether it's Carter's ineffectiveness or questions about McCain's credentials on the economy.

DALLEK: It's not so much that -- suddenly eureka, this has been so surprising, so amazing, but rather, people nod, yes. This is where we thought things were going.

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BASH: And it's possible we may have already seen this election year's October surprise. Maybe it was the candidate's reaction to the tragedy in Libya and the broader unrest in the Middle East or Mitt Romney's 47 percent remarks. Or perhaps one or both of the campaigns is holding onto something damaging about the other. Or maybe there will be an unforeseen event on the world's stage. It's hard to say, since if we could guess, Wolf, it would be called an October surprise.

BLITZER: It would be a prediction. It maybe wouldn't be a surprise.

BASH: October predictable doesn't work well.

BLITZER: That's one of the things I've always wondered. Do these campaigns hold something really sensitive, and then release it at that right moment.

BOLDUAN: It's happened (ph). We will see.

All right. Jeanne Moos has found a very different October surprise for us. You won't believe how much this pumpkin weighs. Coming up.

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BLITZER: Hollywood pumpkins -- Halloween pumpkins, I should say, are showing up in grocery stores across the country. Maybe Hollywood pumpkins, as well. But in any case, they're nothing like the one-time wonder. Our Jeanne Moos has that.

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JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kids can get pretty excited poking around a pumpkin patch. But did you ever see one as excited as this? It was the weigh-in that answered Charlie Brown's age-old question.

CHRISTOPHER SHEA, VOICE OF LINUS VAN PELT: Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?

MOOS: There it is. The first ever one-ton pumpkin. The scale tipped 2,009 pounds. Grower Ron Wallace hopped around and ended up in the arms of his fellow giant pumpkin growers at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts.

A one-ton pumpkin is equivalent to the four-minute mile. Back from 2006 when he last broke the record. The one-ton pumpkin is named the Freak 2. It came from the seed of the Freak 1, which unfortunately, died on the vine last year at almost 1,800 pounds.

The Freak 2 won a $5,500 prize, plus a bonus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ten thousand dollars!

MOOS: Ten thousand bucks for breaking the one-ton mark.

Wallace was growing giant pumpkins is addictive.

RON WALLACE, GROWER: Put one of these in the ground and get hooked on 40-plus pounds a day for a few weeks at its peak growth, you'll never grow back to growing vegetables again. MOO (on camera): It may be biggest pumpkin, but it wouldn't win a beauty contest. Instead of being orange and round, it looked more like a globe of yellow, lumpy fat.

Why did he look so homely?

WALLACE: It's genetics. They grow at such a quick pace, they get distorted.

MOOS (voice-over): For now, the Freak 2 is the object of admiration behind glass at the Topsfield Fair. Eventually, it will probably be carved into an incredible jack-o'-lantern, like top veggie carver Ray Villafame (ph).

(on camera): You put this pumpkin out to stud?

WALLACE: Breeding giant pumpkins is like horse racing.

MOOS (voice-over): The Freak 2's seeds could sell for anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per seed to breed other gargantuans.

And to think President Obama joked about hurting his back from picking up this puny specimen. Why, the Freak 2's weight was equal to...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Twelve Barack Obama, six Chris Christies, five sumo wrestlers, these grizzly bears.

MOOS: These brown bears would find the Freak 2 freaking delicious.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

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BLITZER: And that's it for us. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.