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THE SITUATION ROOM
Flooding Disaster; Will Biden Run?; Interview With Arizona Senator John McCain; Rivals Slamming Rubio Over Missed Votes. Aired 18-19:00p ET
Aired October 6, 2015 - 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: The death toll from the disaster is climbing tonight amid growing fear floodwaters haven't yet peaked. I'll talk to the mayor of the state's capital.
And will he or won't he? Speculation raging tonight about whether Vice President Joe Biden will jump into the 2016 White House race, potentially turning it upside down. And now he's answering allegations he used a personal tragedy for political gain.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
There is damning new condemnation tonight on the U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed more than 20 people, including doctors and children. The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan now is calling it a mistake. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders calls it a war crime.
We're also following the escalating crisis in Syria, where Russia's sudden military intervention is now complicating U.S. efforts to fight ISIS. And tonight we're also learning the United States is taking a closer look at implementing a no-fly zone.
And here in the United States, we're watching the disaster unfolding in South Carolina, where record flooding is now blamed for at least 14 deaths and multiple dam failures in that state. And there's also fear the worst may still be to come in some areas.
We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our correspondents and our guests, including Senator John McCain. He's the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also a member of the Homeland Security Committee. He's standing by live.
But let's begin with the new fallout from that deadly U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working the story for us -- Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there are still conflicting reports about exactly what happened. The top general testified today he wants investigators to get to the bottom of it, but he has also taken a very significant step.
STARR (voice-over): In the aftermath of the attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital, a stunning military order from the top U.S. commander.
GEN. JOHN CAMPBELL, COMMANDER OF U.S. FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: I have directed the entire force to undergo in-depth training in order to review all of our operational authorities and rules of engagement.
STARR: That order an acknowledgement that something went wrong. Rules of engagement spell out when and how the U.S. military can conduct airstrikes, like the AC-130 gunship that hit the hospital.
Doctors Without Borders says the U.S. knew it was a hospital. They were under attack for 30 minutes. It could not have been a mistake.
JASON CONE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS: Until we're told otherwise and until we see an independent investigation, we will presume that this was in fact a war crime.
STARR: Did this violate U.S. military rules?
CAMPBELL: Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure to enable fires to go on the ground.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There was no forward air controllers, American forward air controllers on the ground?
CAMPBELL: Sir, we had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires.
STARR: If the U.S. knew it was a hospital, did reports of Taliban firing justify the attack?
CAMPBELL: We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.
STARR: Standards for airstrikes, at least initially, do not appear to have been met at the hospital. Military rules require U.S. troops are at risk. Contrary to initial reports, U.S. troops were not fired on.
When the U.S. is going after al Qaeda. Here, it was the Taliban. When Afghans are about to be overrun. Here, the Afghans were trying to retake the area.
Campbell said the overall security situation in Afghanistan is still so uncertain, he needs to revise his recommendations about a troop reduction.
CAMPBELL: We have to provide senior leadership options different than the current plan that we're going with.
STARR: It remains to be seen how many of the 10,000 troops now in Afghanistan will remain after the end of next year. But with the Taliban, ISIS and al Qaeda on the rise, it is still very much an open question -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.
Doctors Without Borders, the group that ran the hospital, says it presumes the airstrike was a war crime, calling it an inexcusable violation of international humanitarian law.
Our CNN international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, is on the ground for us in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Nic, what's the reaction you're hearing there?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, Doctors Without Borders are now saying they're giving more detail as to why they make this claim that it was a war crime.
They say their staff on the ground at the hospital that night, remembering, again, this is a large compound, with many buildings in it, that they heard the aircraft circling overhead, that then it came and put fire on one of the buildings, the intensive care surgery building, that it circled around a few more times, then came back again and put fire on the same building and did that again, went, circled around a few times, came back.
This is over this long period of 30 minutes, 45 minutes, came back and put fire on the same building again, leaving untouched the other buildings in this big compound. And it's that reason, because of the repeated retargeting of a single building, given that their forward air controllers have to run coordinates each time there's about to be a strike, they have to be run, they have to be checked.
So, they say this repeated process means it couldn't, therefore, have been a mistake, because it happened so many times. That's what they're saying, Wolf. The knock-on effect is that all U.N. agencies, all non-governmental agencies, international and Afghan, have pulled out of Kunduz now. There is very, very little in terms of humanitarian support for the people that remain there, Wolf.
BLITZER: Is the Afghan government taking responsibility, too? Did they provide bad information to the U.S.?
ROBERTSON: You know, the Afghan government really isn't speaking out about who provided which piece of information. The Health Ministry is calling, like Doctors Without Borders, for an independent investigation. They say that all health care workers in Afghanistan are now afraid. I have talked to the M.P. from Kunduz. She's been forced out of
her home. I have talked with people from Kunduz there. They feel let down by the government, because they feel that the army ran away. They feel that the Taliban were let too easily into the city. But the bottom line here is, Wolf, and I talked to this M.P., member of Afghan Parliament, from Kunduz and the people of that city.
Despite the fact that the hospital was hit, apparently by U.S. fire, they still say the army right now, the Afghan army, the Afghan people need the support of the U.S. military. They say, please avoid civilian casualties, but we continue to need that support, Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Kabul for us, Nic, thank you.
Sources inside the Obama administration are telling CNN the increasingly complex war in Syria now has top officials discussing the possibility of implementing what's described as a no-fly zone over at least parts of that country.
Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Elise, what are you finding out?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know that the U.S. has really been looking for ways to increase its involvement in Syria in terms of trying to get some leverage on the ground.
The Russian involvement, the military intervention has really caught the U.S. off guard. There's a lot of desire to help ease the humanitarian burden on the ground. I understand now there is increased talk about a possible no-fly zone, some safe zones in Syria, particularly in the north, to help protect the Syrian civilians on the ground there, try and defend them not only against ISIS, but against Syrian airstrikes, these horrible barrel bombs.
I understand Secretary of State John Kerry revisited this idea. You know, it's not -- it's been an idea long discussed, but U.S. officials have voiced concern about implementing such a thing. I understand now Secretary Kerry has asked for new options, asked his staff to develop this idea. I wouldn't say it's gaining a lot of traction within the administration, but there are increased calls on trying to not only help protect those civilians, but also to increase the leverage with the Russians, Wolf.
You know, right now, the Russian air force has really dominated the skies. The U.S. says it's continuing to launch airstrikes in the area against is, but, clearly, the Russians have the advantage now.
BLITZER: Would the U.S. do this, if they do a no-fly zone alone, or would NATO allies, other countries, allies of the U.S. get involved?
LABOTT: Well, I think it's still just one of the options being discussed. I think that you have heard calls by Turkey and also France for a
no-fly zone. Certainly, the U.S. would need extra help in the area. There's talk about trying to ask the British and the Australians for help. But right now, I think it's just in the infancy stage. You heard President Obama last week talk about this, these type of ideas being half-baked because it's really a lot of concern about how would you implement it, what type of resources, how would you vet the rebels and refugees that would get into that area?
But you will note that Secretary -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, John Kerry's predecessor, also has come out in favor of the no-fly zone. So, I think it's still an option being discussed, but there's clearly more talk about it, Wolf.
BLITZER: And the president was blunt. He said Hillary Clinton's idea of a no-fly zone, it's one thing to say it as a presidential candidate.
BLITZER: It's another thing when you're president of the United States to implement that kind of potentially very dangerous operation.
Elise, thank you.
Russia is rejecting calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, where the Kremlin's sudden military buildup is complicating the U.S.-led war on ISIS. And it's putting a spotlight on the alliance between Vladimir Putin and the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
Brian Todd is taking a closer look at the ties between these two men.
Brian, what are you finding out?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there is real concern tonight that Vladimir Putin is doubling down in Syria, escalating his military presence, deploying ground troops.
It's prompting serious questions over just how invested Putin is in Bashar al-Assad. We have got new information tonight on the alliance between Putin and Assad and the initial communication which led to the Russian deployment.
TODD (voice-over): It was a letter, a personal overture from Bashar al-Assad to Vladimir Putin, which opened the door to Russian forces entering Syria. That's according to Syrian and Russian officials, a request from an embattled dictator to his ally, which now threatens America's already shaky strategy against ISIS.
MATTHEW ROJANSKY, DIRECTOR, KENNAN INSTITUTE, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: The dangerous factor in the Assad- Putin alliance and the Russian intervention in Syria more broadly is that it's putting a lot more fuel on an already raging fire. If Assad comes on strong now with a new offensive backed by Russian materiel, Russian troops, Russian pilots, Russian planes, a lot more people are going to die.
TODD: It's an alliance dating back to the Cold War, when the Soviets gave arms and support to Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, a man every bit as brutal as his son. But analysts say the personal relationship between Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin is far from friendly.
ANDREW TABLER, FELLOW, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Actually, President Putin was very angry with President Assad after the most recent peace talks between Syrians in Moscow in April. During those peace talks, Assad and his delegation were extremely rigid and actually went against the expressed wishes of Putin. So, he was angry about that.
TODD: Why is Putin so invested in Assad now? Analysts say Putin needs warm-weather ports and bases on the Mediterranean and wants to counter America's moves in the region, but this is also about Putin projecting his relevance and strength, admitting to CBS' "60 Minutes" it's something he takes pride in.
QUESTION: They see these images of you bare-chested on a horse, and they say, there is a man who carefully cultivates his image of strength.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): You know, I'm convinced that a person in my position must provide a positive example to people. In those areas where he can do this, he must do this.
TODD: But how could betting on Bashar go south for Vladimir Putin?
BEN JUDAH, AUTHOR, "FRAGILE EMPIRE": If I was Vladimir Putin, which, thankfully I'm not, I would be very worried about footage coming from Syria of Russian pilots potentially being kidnapped or burnt, such as happened to a Jordanian pilot not all that long ago.
TODD: Now, if something like that happens, don't look for whatever personal connection there is between these two men to hold.
A U.S. intelligence official is telling us Putin's involvement in Syria is his chance to be at the center of the world stage, but if Bashar Assad's failures threaten to trip him up, this official says, Vladimir Putin may be inclined to push Assad out and support someone else as Syria's leader -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, how is this involvement by the Russians in Syria actually playing back home for Vladimir Putin?
TODD: Well, Russian media, Wolf, which dares not cross Vladimir Putin, is, of course, very positive in its coverage of this, but analysts say Putin has to be careful. There's one independent poll in Russia which shows that most Russians are opposed to Russia's military involvement in Syria.
If Putin commits too heavily to ground troops in Syria, he's going to get some serious brushback at home. It's going to remind Russians of the bloodbath that their troops went through in Afghanistan in the '80s. They do not want a repeat of that, Wolf.
BLITZER: But it's also true, Brian, that it's not just Russia that is supporting Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, he's got extensive support from Iran, extensive support from Hezbollah in Lebanon. He's got sort of a coalition of support that's helping him in this battle not only against ISIS, but against these U.S.-trained rebels, if you will.
TODD: He's got that coalition, Wolf, but again, these countries are invested in him now because he offers them some semblance of stability in the region.
And, again, if it goes south, you know, Bashar al-Assad on his own in this conflict, he has lost territory, he has lost a lot of troops. You know, his leadership on the battlefield is in real question here. Vladimir Putin may not have too much patience, and neither may Iran going forward, if he continues to lose ground.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, is joining us live from Capitol Hill.
Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.
MCCAIN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: We will get to the situation in Syria in a few moments.
First, you chaired this important Armed Services hearing today on the situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. commander, John Campbell, the general there, he said the bombing was a mistake, but Doctors Without Borders, who ran that hospital in Kunduz city, they are now saying this was a war crime committed by the United States. What do you say?
MCCAIN: I say that's ridiculous.
I say that, unfortunately, one of the tragedies of war is that things like this took place -- take place. And our hearts are with all the families of those who were killed or injured.
The Taliban had taken Kunduz. They were fighting back. This is fog of war. And war crimes -- as I understand it, a war crime is something that is intentionally done. There is no evidence whatsoever that this was an intentional attack. And I hope that when we look at the massive war crimes that are being perpetrated by others, including Bashar al-Assad, including Vladimir Putin, that we would focus some of our attention on them.
BLITZER: We know there's going to be a U.S. military investigation, a NATO investigation and an Afghan government investigation. Doctors Without Borders say they want an international investigation as well, maybe by the U.N. or some other international entity. Would you favor that?
MCCAIN: Of course not.
I would not submit the United States armed forces, men and women in the armed forces, to an investigation by the U.N. or any other international body. Our record is very clear of finding out, assessing responsibility, and I'm proud of it, and I don't need any help from anybody outside the United States of America.
BLITZER: Here's what worries a lot of people. General Campbell, in your hearing today, he said he's going to order new rules of engagement for the U.S. military operating in Afghanistan.
Now, this war is the longest war that the U.S. military forces have engaged in combat in, 14 years to the day tomorrow. Why, all of a sudden, is there a necessity for new rules of engagement?
MCCAIN: Well, one of the reasons may be is that we no longer -- because of the president's precipitous and unnecessary drawdown, that we don't have forward air controllers that are there on the ground, which gives you the most accurate targeting of weapons on a target.
Obviously, he didn't say he was going to change the rules of engagement. In the light of anything like this, you always want to review the rules of engagement to make sure that this kind of thing can never happen again. It's fog of war, Wolf, and it's terrible and it's tragic, but the Taliban are the ones that initiated the attacks into Kunduz, not the United States of America or the men and women who are serving it.
BLITZER: Senator, we have more to discuss, including what's going on in Syria, Russia's involvement. Please stay with us for a moment.
We will take a quick break, much more with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, when we come back.
BLITZER: More fuel on an already raging fire, that's how one expert describes Russia's sudden military intervention into Syria's bloody civil war.
And, tonight, sources inside the Obama administration are telling CNN top officials are discussing the possibility of implementing a U.S. no-fly zone over parts of Syria.
We're back with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
What do you say, Senator, in the face of Syrian/Russian close cooperation now? How do you deal with Vladimir Putin? What can the U.S. do?
MCCAIN: I think we have a variety of options, some of them laid out by General Petraeus before the Armed Services Committee a week before last, and among them are a no-fly zone, no more barrel bombs, set up a buffer zone, do a real, legitimate train-and-equip that fights against Bashar al-Assad, as well as ISIS.
One of the colossal failures in recent history was they were training -- DOD was training these young men to go in and fight only against Bashar Assad -- excuse me -- against ISIS, and not Bashar Assad, while they're being barrel-bombed by Bashar Assad, a degree of immorality that I have hardly ever seen.
And, of course, we need to understand that the Russians are trying to achieve a goal of a major role in the Middle East, protecting their base, and also now bringing Iranians in to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad as well.
It's escalating, and the United States, secretary of state says it's an opportunity. The secretary of defense says it's unprofessional. And the beat goes on and the deaths go on. It's unbelievable.
BLITZER: Well, do you support this no-fly zone over all of Syria or over parts of Syria?
MCCAIN: I would start with parts of Syria in order to maintain a buffer zone and a place where refugees could be and all that.
I would certainly start with a no-fly zone and take down -- I would also, as General Petraeus recommended, wherever they are, I would take out the barrel bombing. It is horrible what the barrel bombs have done, as you know.
BLITZER: Would Russia -- what if Russia doesn't cooperate? Because they're launching airstrikes, as you know, in various parts of Syria right now. What if they say they're not party to this no-fly zone?
MCCAIN: I'm sure they would say that, and we would go ahead and act.
We're the strongest nation in the world. Russia is intervening and killing our moderate Free Syrian Army folks. The moderates are the ones that are being struck by Vladimir Putin, and we are sitting by and watching it.
[18:25:00] And a recent leader of the Free Syrian Army says, we have been
abandoned by the United States. We have got a huge credibility problem here that we're going to have to rebuild as well.
What is the morality of training young men, send them into Syria and then not protect them from attacks of the Russians and Bashar Assad?
BLITZER: But if the Russians don't cooperate, what you're suggesting, Senator, correct me if I'm wrong, potentially, U.S./Russian military engagement, that potentially could lead to a U.S./Russian war.
MCCAIN: If the Russians didn't cooperate in the Balkans when we took on Milosevic, if the Russians didn't cooperate in the Cuban Missile Crisis, if the Russians didn't -- at some point, the United States of America has to act.
And by establishing a no-fly zone and a buffer state, it's not the United States that's at fault here, Wolf. At some point, you have to tell the Russians that they're not free to act however they want to, whether it be in Ukraine or pressures on the Baltic countries or moving in anti-aircraft artillery and missiles -- by the way, ISIS has no air force -- and act with impunity.
There has to be a point where we say, look, here's -- we have got to protect these people, we have got to stop the barrel bombing, and you have got to stop it, Russia.
BLITZER: So, you're saying that the U.S. should potentially, potentially could go to war with Russia...
MCCAIN: No, I'm not...
BLITZER: ... over what's going on in Syria?
MCCAIN: Of course I'm not -- of course I'm not saying that at all.
It's the Russians that have moved in there. It's the Russians that are killing the Free Syrian Army. I mean, it's the Russians that are backing Bashar Assad, who has killed 240,000 of his people and driven millions into exile, refugee status. It is the Russians that are working with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and killing people as we speak, my friend.
It's not the United States of America. And we have to say we are establishing this no-fly zone and we are going to stop the barrel bombing. That's what the United States should say and can say, and it does not and will not lead to war with Russia, nor has any other time we have stood up to Russia led to it, because that's not what this bully and thug Vladimir Putin is all about.
BLITZER: Let me ask a couple of political questions. MCCAIN: And the other option.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Senator.
MCCAIN: And you keep saying -- you keep saying war, Wolf. Where do we stop? Where do we draw the line then? What, do we just do whatever you want? Is this -- we don't -- that's not the United States of America, my friend, and I believe that most Americans would back a no-fly zone, just as Secretary Clinton has said that she backs.
Go ahead, please.
BLITZER: All right, let's talk about your friend Lindsey Graham.
Let's say he -- I know you endorse him for the Republican presidential nomination, but let's say he doesn't get it. Who would your second choice be?
MCCAIN: Oh, I think there's a number, Wolf, who are good second choices. Many of them are good governors, successful governors, good people who have good records of service, both in the Senate and other ways.
I could rattle off names, which I will, and I'll leave out one, and then they will be all mad, OK? Kasich -- Kasich, Christie, Bush, Jindal. There's a whole lot. But I just want to say, again, I'm in with Lindsey until the end. He's my man and I believe in him, and I love him.
BLITZER: What about Marco Rubio?
MCCAIN: Oh, Marco, yes. I'm sorry. I left him out. He's very bright, very articulate, very good on national security. I think he's going to be a real player here.
BLITZER: You know, he's coming under some criticism, serious criticism, from Donald Trump, from Jeb Bush for missing all these Senate votes.
You ran for president as a sitting United States Senator. Do you think Senator Rubio's missed votes should disqualify him or raise questions about his credibility?
MCCAIN: Well, I would leave it up to his constituents to make that decision.
But let me say that, when I ran, twice, lost, I was able to convince my constituents that I was running and that I was going to miss votes. I think if you do very badly and miss votes, they may make a different judgment, but I think at the end of the day, because I did well, that most of my constituents were kind of proud.
BLITZER: And the other name you didn't mention is Donald Trump. I take it you're not a fan.
MCCAIN: Well, you know, he, again, keeps saying that we will let them fight it out, and the Russians aren't attacking our Free Syrian Army.
I just wish that he would ask the Pentagon for a good briefing, so that he would have a good -- or maybe call up someone he respects, like General Petraeus or General Keane or one of these people, and get a good in-depth briefing, so he would have a better understanding of the situation. I just don't think he has that now.
BLITZER: Senator McCain, thanks very much for joining us.
MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, Hillary Clinton on the offensive as everyone waits to see whether Vice President Joe Biden will jump into the race.
And record flooding claiming more lives in South Carolina. We're just getting confirmation that yet another dam has just failed. We're live in the disaster zone.
[18:35:20] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of South Carolina. Look at these live pictures coming in. Emergency officials just confirmed an 11th dam has failed. Record flooding in the state is now blamed for at least 15 deaths in South Carolina. And even though the rain has stopped, the water in some places is still rising.
Let's get some more on the disaster. The mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, Stephen Benjamin, is joining us once again.
Mr. Mayor, what's the latest update on the flooding conditions in your capital city of Columbia?
STEPHEN BENJAMIN, MAYOR OF COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, Wolf, the rising waters are starting to abate. Of course, the water that fell in the upper part of the state was still down to the midlands, but places like the area behind me that once looked like a small lake, are almost back to normal. But obviously, the roads that they covered for a significant period of time have significantly deteriorated.
So, behind our No. 1 priority of preserving human life and making sure that our folks enjoy some quality of life -- shelter, food, water -- we're spending a great deal of time assessing the strength of our existing infrastructure and making sure that people and product can move across them safely.
BLITZER: How careful do you need to be of the floodwaters continuing to move to what's called the low country? You're clearly not out of the woods yet, are you?
BENJAMIN: Sure. We are encouraging people to be as careful as possible. The last two nights, obviously, we've had a curfew, and we're having a curfew one more time, but it's later, midnight to 6 a.m., to keep people off of the roads. Certain things that are obvious to us during the daytime while
the sun's up are not as obvious at nighttime. So, we're trying our best to make sure we keep people off the roads, protect them from themselves, until we have a better chance to assess the challenges before us.
BLITZER: Are you getting enough aid from the federal government?
BENJAMIN: Wolf, we've had incredible support at every level of government, from the federal government, state government; the governor's been helping us and leading along with our adjutant general with the National Guard, and great local participation.
Our police department along with our fire department and our sheriff's department yesterday searched 1,800 homes, evacuated 350 people, using resources of every level of government. We're working together, and that's the only way you can get through this type of 1,000-year tragedy.
BLITZER: Stephen Benjamin is the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. Mr. Mayor, good luck to you. Good to all the folks in Columbia and throughout South Carolina, as well. Thank you.
BENJAMIN: Wolf, thank you for your attention.
BLITZER: Just ahead, Hillary Clinton is out with her first national TV ad, and she's going on the offensive. Is she now distancing herself from her former boss, President Obama?
[18:42:29] BLITZER: We're now exactly one week away from the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, and tonight the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is airing her first national TV ad as her campaign faces an increasingly strong challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders and the uncertainty of a possible White House bid by the vice president, Joe Biden.
Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, he's in Iowa where the Clinton campaign is moving forward.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thanks to all of you!
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hillary Clinton back in Iowa today and finally playing offense.
ZELENY: She's taking to the airwaves, seizing on House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy's suggestion the committee investigating the Benghazi attacks is designed to bring down her candidacy. REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), CALIFORNIA: Everybody thought Hillary
Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we've put together a Benghazi special committee. What are her numbers today?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Republicans have spent millions attacking Hillary.
ZELENY: It's the first national television ad of her campaign, taking on Republicans, but not overlooking the Democratic race that's tougher than she imagined. With Bernie Sanders catching fire with liberals and Vice President Joe Biden waiting in the wings, Clinton is trying to hold onto her claim as the Democratic frontrunner.
CLINTON: Now I'm back on the campaign trail.
ZELENY: Day by day, she's putting more distance between her position and President Obama's. She's saying yes to a Syrian no-fly zone. She's saying no to the Keystone XL Pipeline, and she's speaking out forcefully against U.S. deportation.
In an interview with Telemundo, she outlined one of her biggest splits with the president, saying, "I think we have to go back to being a much less harsh and aggressive enforcer."
But it's Vice President Biden who's captivating the party's interest as he nears the decision about the 2016 race. Biden kept out of public view today, holding his weekly White House lunch with the president, but speculation about his political future raged.
In Iowa today, those lining up to see Clinton had Biden on their minds.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Competition is always good, and that's his choice. So, he needs to decide that.
ZELENY: But several Democrats hoped Biden stayed on the sidelines.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm pretty satisfied between Hillary and Bernie. I like both of them.
ZELENY: Few people are eagerly awaiting an answer more than Clinton, but today she played it cool, joking about her star turn on "Saturday Night Live."
CLINTON: You know, I have been trying out different possible careers, and you know, I kind of like the bartending idea.
ZELENY: Now, she drew cheers and applause from that line today. She's trying to project an image of calm.
Just a few minutes ago, Wolf, she actually announced to a group of Iowans here that she has sent personally signed letters and signed copies of her book "Hard Choices" to every Republican candidate. But it is the Democratic field that is causing her campaign so much uncertainty. I am told tonight that one of the super PACs supporting her presidency, Correct the Record, is doing opposition research on Vice President Biden, should he get in the race.
So, Wolf, this could be a very, very messy primary, should that happen.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Should that happen, key words. Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny in Davenport, Iowa.
Let's dig deeper with our chief political correspondent Dana Bash, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, and our CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel.
Jamie, this is a critical period for the vice president right now.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.
Look, we're hearing that he's going to make a decision in the next week or two. The fact of the matter is, he has to make a decision quickly. He has to file in November. And every day, if he's going to run, he's missing time raising money. He's missing time putting his ground game together.
So, look, dates have been floated, and then we've blown by them before, but he's got to do it quickly.
BLITZER: You saw this story, Gloria, in "Politico," suggesting that Biden himself leaked word of his son's dying wish, Beau Biden died a few months ago of cancer, that Beau supposedly on his death bed told his dad, I want you to run for president of the United States. The vice president is categorically denying this "Politico" story, saying it's categorically false and the characterization is offensive, that he leaked this for political purposes.
What are you hearing?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Even inside Biden world, people who are allies of Joe Biden, believe that now he's finally lost control of his own story, which is never a good thing to do.
He -- people don't vote for president out of sympathy. They vote for president because they think you're going to be a strong leader. And I was told today that there is now an awful lot of pressure on Joe Biden, even more than there was a day ago, to make a decision about running, not only because of early filing deadlines in states like New Hampshire and Texas and Michigan, but also because of the party and because for his own reputation. They don't believe he can string it out any further.
And so, even internally, there have been private meetings. As Jeff was saying, he met with the president today. We don't know what occurred at that meeting, but I do believe he's got to do it quickly. DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: But to answer also
your question, I mean, just off of Gloria's reporting, the idea that Joe Biden would be the person to call and give information about his son is so potentially devastating on so many levels, but first and foremost because he is supposed to be sort of the original, authentic candidate. And for him to look so politically craven is the worst thing for him, which is why they've pushed back so hard on this.
BORGER: Yes, they're pushing back as hard as they possibly can, calling it offensive and everything else, because they understand the damage it could do.
BLITZER: Ladies, stand by for a moment. I just want to remind all of our viewers that CNN will host the first Democratic presidential debate one week from tonight, October 13th, in Las Vegas.
Much more on what's going on, on the Republican side of this race for the White House, when we come back.
[18:53:05] BLITZER: Marco Rubio is the Republican presidential candidate right now in the spotlight. But he may be finding it a little hot. The senior Florida senator facing some serious criticism for missing votes while campaigning for president including one vote today.
Our chief political correspondent Dana Bash is still with us. She's looking into this.
What's the latest on Rubio?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: If you go back in recent history, Wolf, and look at senators running for president -- John Kerry, John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton -- they all missed votes.
But now in this cycle, Marco Rubio has missed more than any senators running for president and his opponents are slamming him for it.
BASH (voice-over): Marco Rubio has missed many Senate votes but this was almost a political disaster.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On this vote, the yeas are 73, the nays are 26.
BASH: For a while, it looked like Republicans would need Rubio's help in beating back a Democratic filibuster of a military funding bill.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Marco Rubio.
BASH: He was hundreds of miles north on the presidential campaign trail.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are times when you're not going to be there. Now, let me tell you, we have canceled events and traveled across the country to make votes, especially if we can make a difference or if it's a high profile --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you don't think --
BASH: Rubio didn't cancel today's trip to New Hampshire and lucky for him after high drama, a 15-minute vote dragged out for an hour and a half, so many Democrats broke ranks that Rubio's absence did not cause an embarrassing Republican defeat. One that would have been worse since another Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, was presiding in the Senate.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: The yeas and nays are mandatory under the rule.
BASH: To be sure, Cruz's attendance record is hardly stellar, he's missed almost as many votes this year as Rubio.
And challenges balancing a presidential campaign and a Senate day job is hardly new. During a two-month stretch of the 2008 campaign, then freshman Senator Barack Obama missed many more than Rubio is now, nearly 80 percent of votes.
Still, Rubio's rivals are using his missed votes as a campaign attack line.
[18:55:01] Rubio's former mentor, Jeb Bush, regularly hits him on it, telling voters that senators should only get paid if they show up for work.
JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Everybody in this country works to be able to provide for families. Why is it that people missed votes in the U.S. Congress in such a rampant way? I think if they miss a vote, there should be a deduction in their pay. And I hope you do as well.
BASH: Donald Trump is on his case, too.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's got the worst attendance record. You can't do that. You've got to vote. You know, people elect you to a position, you've got to vote.
BASH: Rubio is slowly climbing in the polls, which puts him squarely in the sights of the GOP front-runner.
TRUMP: Rubio is not the guy negotiating with the kind of people you have to negotiate with to turn this around.
BASH: That as Trump insists he's in this for the long haul.
TRUMP: I'm leading every poll. I'm leading every state. I'm not going anywhere.
BASH: And as for Rubio, sources say he certainly regrets missing votes, but they say it's just not practical for him to travel the country running for president while being in Washington. Rubio is not running for re-election in the Senate and sources close to Rubio privately insist that, Wolf, he is not going to pay a price with Republican presidential primary voters for missing Senate votes.
BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens.
We'll talk quickly, Gloria, about Dr. Ben Carson. He is doing really well in the polls on the Republican side. But he said this and it's causing a buzz out there earlier today on FOX. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Not only would I probably not cooperate with them, I not just stand there and let them shoot me. I would say, hey, guys, every attack him. He may shoot me, but he can't get us all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He was talking about what happened in Oregon the other day when shooter came into those classrooms and started killing all these people. He says, in effect, I guess, the implication is he is blaming them. They should have been more responsive.
BORGER: Yes, it sounds like he is blaming the victims. Whether he intended to do that or not, who knows?
But this is just one more instance of Dr. Carson being a new presidential candidate who just talks and doesn't really understand the consequences of it as he is doing it.
BLITZER: It doesn't seem to have hurt him so far.
BORGER: Well, it hasn't hurt him so far, not with the Republican primary voters. But in a general election campaign, this could be a huge problem. He also, by the way, criticized President Obama for planning to go to Oregon on Friday to console the families of victims. And some would argue, I would argue that's part of the job of being president of the United States.
BLITZER: Consoler-in-chief, if you will.
BLITZER: What are you hearing, Jamie, about Jeb Bush, because sources are saying there's all sorts of stuff going on right now.
GANGEL: Well, they are feeling a little bit better because the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll for New Hampshire had him at 11 percent. Not 7 percent or 8 percent.
We are also hearing that he feels as if the other guy's in his lane. Not the three outsiders, not Trump, and Carson and Fiorina but Kasich, Christie, they're not raising a lot of money. They're not getting traction.
And the other thing that's making them happy, is their new best friend Donald Trump who is going after Rubio. You know, Rubio and Jeb like to say they're friends. But Trump retweeted this picture of Rubio as a child saying, don't let a boy do a man's job and says he sweats all the time and sent water bottles over to him.
I am sure the Bush people love that. It doesn't hurt them.
BASH: The enemy of your enemy is your friend.
BLITZER: The Jeb Bush people feel Rubio is a real challenge.
BASH: Absolutely. I mean, Jamie is talking about the lanes which is so critical when you're looking at the sort of landscape of this Republican field. Marco Rubio is absolutely in Jeb Bush's lane, not only in his lane but somebody they worry could really be probably the biggest threat. They worried about that for a long time, which is why inside Bush world, they were so angry Marco Rubio decided to run, even and especially after Jeb Bush announced his candidacy. It wasn't just personal, it was political.
BLITZER: Gloria, this morning on the "Today" show, Rubio seemed to be offering yet another position on illegal immigration, what he would do about it, whether some could stay, get green cards. You see what's being described as various flip-flops.
BORGER: Right. He is between the primary electorate and general election, right? And he's seen the trouble his support for immigration reform got him in when he was in the Senate. He doesn't want to go back there again with primary voters. And he understands what happened to Mitt Romney. Remember when Mitt Romney called for self-deportation? That was a problem.
So, he is trying to kind of walk this fine line and it's trouble for him.
BLITZER: Certainly is. All right. We'll stay on top of this obviously for all our viewers. Guys, thanks very, very much.
Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Tweet me @wolfblitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitroom. Please be sure to join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.