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The Situation Room

Hurricane Wilma At Record Intensity And Barreling Closer To Land; Date Set For Senate Showdown Over Harriet Miers; Bush Awaits Legal News On Top Aides

Aired October 19, 2005 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali. We'll get back to you. Ali Velshi, reporting from New York.
It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.

Happening now, Hurricane Wilma at record intensity and barreling closer to land. After the lessons of Katrina, is Florida ready right now for the onslaught that may be ahead?

The date is set for a Senate showdown over Harriet Miers. But for this embattled Supreme Court nominee, even the timing of her confirmation is controversial.

And a president who campaigned on integrity now living with the fallout from that CIA leak. This hour, the ironies and the uncertainty as the president of the United States waits to learn the legal fate of his top aides.

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

The National Hurricane Center is warning Florida is almost certain to take a pounding from this record-breaking storm named Wilma, the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. Now it's a Category 5. It's expected to hit Florida sometime this weekend. Tourists already under orders to evacuate the Florida Keys, at high risk of taking a direct hit.


MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: I just don't see how the Florida Keys will get out of this without having a major impact. The biggest concern for the storm surge will obviously be on the Gulf Coast, but we also have to deal with the rainfall and the winds and the tornadoes elsewhere. And that means here at Miami-Dade and Broward County, too.


BLITZER: National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, by the way, scheduled to hold a news conference this hour. We will carry it live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stay tuned for that. The latest forecasts coming up. Right now, let's go to CNN's Hurricane Headquarters, our severe weather expert, Chad Myers standing by. What exactly do we know about this monster?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: We still know that it is deeper in pressure, lower in pressure. We know that the lower it is, the worse it is. It is still lower, deeper in pressure than Katrina or Rita, and for a while today, when these colors were so bright, vivid red right there, it was the strongest storm, the deepest, lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

That's the Gulf of Mexico, that's the Caribbean or the Atlantic Ocean. The deepest. Now, there were bigger storms in the Pacific, but it's a bigger ocean. They have more time to grow. This is what we have right now for you. The latest winds that I just got out of the hurricane at about 155 miles per hour.

So maybe not quite as intense as it was before. Why? Because we've lost a little bit of the eye. We can't see it quite as well. That means we're probably going through what we call an eye wall replacement cycle. There are a number of eye walls -- actually, probably two or three in a storm this big. The inner one is going to collapse and fall apart, and the one that's the next outer ring, it's going to take over. And it could re-intensify after it takes over, even though it may be losing a little bit of steam right now. Certainly a Category 4, Category 5, probably making landfall here in Florida as maybe a 3, because we're going to have some wind sheer possibly tear it apart before landfall.

A big story, Wolf, is going to be whether the wind comes from the ocean side or it comes from the bay side, from the Keys, and how much surge we get from Naples back probably all the way through the Everglades.

BLITZER: Chad, I take it once this goes across the Florida Peninsula, it's going to move relatively rapidly, and it won't necessarily slow down all that much as it goes from west it east. Is that right?

MYERS: That's right. And one of the disturbing thing we just noticed on some of the latest computer models, it gets picked up by a low pressure -- now, this isn't "The Perfect Storm"-type movie -- but it gets picked up on some of the models by a cold front and it slams right through Long Island into New England. That's only one scenario out of about 15 different computers. But I just want it out there so that everybody thinks about this. This is a major storm.

BLITZER: Chad, we'll check back with you. Chad Myers reporting for us.

Let's bring in our Tom Foreman. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM, got a little unique look at Wilma. What are you looking at?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the first thing we're looking at. Look at these amazing pictures from NASA of the storm from way up in space. Just an astonishing view. And then when you put that over here on the map for direct overlay view -- look at this. This is the storm down here, here's Florida, here's the area we're talking, going all up that side there.

Let's go ahead and zoom in and take a look at that -- Naples, Florida, being one of the places we're talking about. About 20,000 people live in Naples, but obviously, lots of tourism, lots of people coming in there. If this area were hit by a Category 1 storm, this is what we could possibly expect -- let me see if I can get the fader to come over here -- what you'd see is this amount of flooding coming in -- excuse me. On a Category 2 storm, you see about this much flooding coming in. Well, let's see if I can make it happen in respect we go. A little bit happening. If we go all the way up to a Category 5, which is the big danger here, then you start talking about a tremendous amount of flooding coming in to the area in question.

This is up in Pinellas County. This is the second most densely populated county in the entire country, right behind New York City. Look at this. This is if the Category 5 were to hit there. That's the amount of flooding would you have. This is what it is beforehand with very little going on there.

I'm having trouble controlling it, but if I can get off to the side here, very little. But when you bring it in, that's how much goes under water. Basically, it gets turned into two islands right here and here, with Clearwater and St. Petersburg if a Category 5 makes it that far up.

This is what people there are bracing for. Highly populated county, almost 1 million people there. The only county in the country, county that has more people per square foot is New York City, the island of Manhattan. So there's a tremendous number of people who are watching up and down this coast, wondering if that big storm over there that we can see the pictures from NASA is going to keep coming up their way.

BLITZER: I suspect everyone in Florida right now is watching this very, very closely, and all of us who have loved ones down there and friends down there, we're watching it very closely as well.

FOREMAN: After the last few years, how can you not?

BLITZER: Yes, the whole world will be watching soon pretty soon. All right, thanks very much, Tom. Appreciate it.

We're going to have much more coming up on Hurricane Wilma this hour. Remember, we're standing by to go live to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Max Mayfield, later this hour will be having a news conference with the latest forecast, the latest information, where this hurricane is heading. We'll bring that to you live.

In the meantime, let's turn to politics and the Supreme Court showdown that's unfolding here in Washington. A date has now been set for Harriet Miers' confirmation hearings to begin over the objections of several Democrats. But both sides do agree on something. They want a do-over from Miers.

Here's our congressional correspondent Ed Henry. He's standing by with the latest. Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as expected, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter did announce that, in fact, the hearings will start on November 7 -- as you mentioned, despite the objections of Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. He wanted at least another week to review the record, the background, of Harriet Miers.

But what was completely unexpected is the fact that Specter and Leahy came together, joined forces to blast the nominee and the White House, saying that the questionnaire that was turned over to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday was incomplete. They complained about too many one-word answers. Also, not enough information, not enough details about Harriet Miers' time as White House counsel. Clearly frustrated, Specter said that he believes the process, quite frankly, has been a mess so far. He wants to rein it in.


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN OF THE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think it's been a chaotic process, very candidly, as to what has happened, because of all of the conference calls and all of the discussions, which are alleged in the back room.


HENRY: Specter says the best way to deal with that is to get the hearings moving as quickly as possible. His Democratic counterpart, Patrick Leahy, had very tough words for Harriet Miers, saying that the reaction to that questionnaire from his Democratic colleagues has been basically to say that it's been everything from inadequate, incomplete and insulting.

Here's Leahy.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We have a responsibility to 98 other Senators, who then have a responsibility to every person in this country. We're working hard to carry out our responsibilities and not have this thing taken by winks and nods and quiet promises over conference calls. We'd actually like to know what the heck is going on? And I sure want to know before I vote.


HENRY: The bottom line is that it's not good news for Harriet Miers that she now has the Republican Chairman Arlen Specter saying this questionnaire was incomplete and needs to be clarified just a couple days after Miers got into a dispute with Specter about exactly what she said behind closed doors during a private meet they go had.

As you know, Specter is very demanding. He's known as somebody who you do not want on his bad side. And as one Democratic senator said to me with a laugh, if you're a nominee before his committee, the first thing you want to do is make sure you don't get on the wrong side of Arlen Specter. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, let's switch gears briefly, Ed. Tom DeLay, the former majority leader in the House, now just a United States congressman, he's been indicted. What is about to happen in Texas?

HENRY: There's an arrest warrant now that that the court issued, and basically, this is to make sure that the fingerprinting and that the actual mug shot photo is taken in advance of Tom DeLay's first court appearance on Friday. This is usually a relatively routine procedure usually, but obviously, nothing is routine about the fact that the former House majority leader now has an arrest warrant out for him.

He's not fleeing justice or anything, he's planning to go down to Texas. But that's why there's so much more interest from the media, that's why Democrats are jumping on this and making a lot out of it. Tom DeLay is still in D.C., about to head to Texas. He's clearly frustrated about the attention, telling our producer Ted Barrett (ph) a short while ago, "We all know what this is about. The quicker it's over, the better".


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Ed Henry reporting.

Staying with the political news here in Washington, over at the White House, plenty of nails are being bitten today with the CIA leak investigation apparently nearing an end.

Our national correspondent Bob Franken is on indictment watch right now. What's the latest? What are we hearing, Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it could be non- indictment watch. We're hearing that it's fairly likely that the special prosecutor, after nearly two years of investigation, is close to making his decision as a natural deadline here when the grand jury ends its work, which would be a week from Friday. Of course, he could extend, but the likelihood, most agree, is that he will make his decisions known.

BLITZER: OK, Bob. Judith Miller, the "New York Times" reporter, she was testifying today up on Capitol Hill. What was going on, on that front?

FRANKEN: Well, she is now becoming the champion, or wants to become the champion, of a national federal reporter shield law so you don't run into this situation. Reporters can keep their sources confidential. And usually what happens, this is one of those issues that politicians will normally say they favor until the time comes to really make it happen.

BLITZER: Bob Franken reporting for us. Thank you, Bob, very much.

Democrats today are asking the Bush White House for details of a private talk the president had with Karl Rove back in 2003 about Rove's connection to the CIA leak.

Let's go to the White House right now. Our White House correspondent Dana Bash is standing by there. Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you're referring to specifically the letter from Democrat Chuck Schumer to the president today. What he wants to know is some details about an article essentially that, to the president two years ago, gave Karl Rove a tongue lashing over the whole Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame issue.

Now, the White House says that that report is inaccurate, but it certainly is just the latest example of the White House trying to beat back news reports while everybody in Washington is holding their breath.


BASH (voice-over): Education. That's what the president invited reporters in to talk about. Reporters wanted to ask about Karl Rove. No answer, as cameras were escorted out. The question this day is about this article, saying the president rebuked Rove two years ago for his role in the Valerie Plame affair.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I've seen a lot of conflicting reports, and we're just not going to comment further on an ongoing investigation.

BASH: Behind the scenes, senior Bush aides worked to squash the story. One called it total baloney, but a source familiar with internal White House political discussions tells CNN there's no question the president made clear to Rove he's disappointed in what became a bungled attempt to shape a press story about Iraq WMD.

It's the nature of their relationship and the Bush style. This is a president who gets upset when there's a typo in a memo, the source said. Over the summer, the White House choreographed pictures of Bush and Rove together, a show of support. Not recently. Rove's been largely out of public view, even canceling some events.


BASH: Senior Bush aides say there's no question Rove and other key subjects in the leak investigation are preparing for the possibility of stepping aside, if indicted. One top official said of Rove, he's a planner. It's his nature.

Aides deny having strategy sessions on who would replace Rove or anyone else if need be, but one source close to the White House says they're likely happening at the highest levels. How does all this affect the mood here? One veteran of White House scandals calls it torture.

LANNY DAVIS, FORMER CLINTON COUNSEL: It's a scary sensation to know that there's an unaccountable, unmanageable power that can literally destroy lives, political fortunes. And that's the sensation -- total lack of control or ability to manage.

BASH: Democrats watching from afar call all this ironic, since Mr. Bush was elected after eight years of Clinton, promising to change the culture in Washington.

BUSH: Finally, a leader must uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which he had been elected.


BASH: And this has been going on for two years. But remember, Wolf, this is actually the only real criminal investigation of this administration. Now, if you ask Democrats, they'll say that's because Republicans have pretty much controlled Congress since Mr. Bush has been in office, and they have sort of brushed aside other things Democrats think should have been investigated.


BLITZER: Dana Bash reporting for us. Dana, thank you very much.

Let's head up to New York, Jack Cafferty's standing by. Looks like they got a little crowd behind you, Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: We have breaking news, Wolf. One of the truly fine producers here in the CNN bureau New York, Phil Hirschkorn, is celebrating his engagement behind me with all of his colleagues here. They brought me some little carrots, actually, as part of the celebration. There's also a report that there are several very disappointed young women on the island of Manhattan upon hearing this news that Phil is soon to be out of circulation.

BLITZER: Congratulate him on behalf of everyone in THE SITUATION ROOM.

CAFFERTY: I'll do that. And I'm going to hit him up for something besides a miniature carrot in a minute, too.

First, though, the 9/11 Commission is back. The "New York Times" is reporting members of the commission are going to fault the government for failing to act on their recommendations in a privately financed report that's coming out tomorrow.

One member said that the bipartisan panel will single out the FBI for talking about well-intentioned reforms but failing to deliver it. They'll also criticize the White House for not doing enough to defend civil liberties. And the Congress will get some blame for failing to follow through on the recommendations for an overhaul of congressional oversight of intelligence and terrorism.

This is over four years after 9/11, and we still have not implemented many of the recommendations made by what I thought was a pretty distinguished bipartisan group, this 9/11 Commission. They studied all things that happened that day, they came out with the report, said here's some things we can do to protect the country. And a lot of this stuff has just been ignored in Washington, and that's a crime.

The question is this. Why hasn't the government implemented many of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission?

And we also accept good wishes for Phil Hirschkorn, who's going to get married.

BLITZER: Good work. Send him our best regards. Thanks very much, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Will do.

BLITZER: I like Phil Hirschkorn a lot.

Coming up, can President Bush bounce back? With his new poll numbers at an all-time low, what does he do next? We have some thoughts.

Also ahead, we'll go live to the National Hurricane Center for a bulletin on Hurricane Wilma. We're standing by for a live forecast, where and when this record storm will strike.

Plus, I'll speak with the mayor of Key West, Florida, where evacuations are already under way.

And up next, Saddam Hussein on trial. A legal landmark or pure theater?



BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. Experts say it's especially important for people in the Florida Keys right now to fully understand how serious the threat from Wilma could be.

The Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson joins us on the phone from Key West. What are you hearing, Mayor? What's going on?

MAYOR MORGAN MCPHERSON, KEY WEST, FLORIDA: From the very models that we see out there, it's causing great room for uncertainty. This storm has really been a real wanderer and it's becoming part of a mystery as to what course it's going it take, direction it's going to take, and where it's going to hit.

So this is definitely a serious threat. Not only is it because of the wind, but also the storm surge, which is supposed to be at least a couple feet greater than Rita, which will definitely cause major flooding. And, also, because we're on the tail side of it, we're going to get some tornadoes.

BLITZER: Well, how much time do you really have to evacuate Key West?

MCPHERSON: Seventy-two hours. We have a mandatory evacuation for tourists and visitors and those that are in mobile homes. By tomorrow at 12:00, if not sooner, we'll have a mandatory evacuation for residents.

BLITZER: You must be getting sick and tired of this. This has been an unbelievable hurricane season, and it really isn't even over until November 30.

MCPHERSON: Yes, it's a great challenge. But the good thing about it is that it obviously puts up us in a position of being well- practiced at what we do. We have a great emergency management team, and this has enabled us to learn from our mistakes in the past and build on them. So we're confident and moving forward and seeing that this is a good transition.

BLITZER: Mayor McPherson, good luck to you, good luck everyone in the Keys. Appreciate it very much.

MCPHERSON: Any time.

BLITZER: In THE SITUATION ROOM, we're plugged into almost everything happening online. Take Key West, for instance, where bars are packed in spite of Hurricane Wilma's approach.

We know that because our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner has told us that. She's checking the situation online. Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: You wouldn't know if I didn't tell you. One of the things we learned over this hurricane season, Wolf, is how you can track storms via Web cams online, and one of the reliable ways to do so are the bar cams in Key West, as you might imagine.

We take a look at Sloppy Joe's, where you can see there are people on a bar, not packed, but a good crowd for 4:20 on a Wednesday. Also another one is Hog's Breath Saloon. I can pull that up, that actually streams fluidly. The other one refreshes every eight seconds.

What's interesting to watch on these cameras, Wolf, as we move along is how these bars prepare. We've seen them boarded up in the past, and, frankly, keep an eye on them until they go down. That's exactly what happens with these Web cams as the hurricane approaches.

BLITZER: I love this stuff. Jacki, thank you very much. Amazing what's out there on the web.

From Jacki Schechner, we'll turn to Zain Verjee. She's at the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news. Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. The trial of Saddam Hussein has been postponed, but not before the former Iraqi president's attorney denounced the proceedings as pure theater. Hussein and seven co-defendants all pleaded not guilty to charges connected to the torture and killing of citizens 23 years ago. The trial then was adjourned until the 28th of November. Hussein's lawyers say that that's just not enough time for them to review the documents and the evidence. President Bush hails the latest test results for American fourth and eighth graders as proof that his No Child Left Behind initiative is working. This year's national assessment scores show a 4 percent gain over last year in fourth grade maths. It also shows a one point gain among eighth graders. Fourth grade reading scores, however, were basically flat. And reading scores for eighth grade actually dropped.

Emergency services in Taiwan today conducted a large-scale drill aimed at combating potentially lethal outbreaks of bird flu. Representatives of local governments, agriculture specialists, police and military officials simulated the arrival of infected birds and their coordinated responses. Dozens of people in Asia died from the disease, at least 60. There have been no confirmed cases in Taiwan.

The Senate Energy Committee today voted 13-9 in favor of opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The proposal would be folded into a much larger budget bill to fund the federal government. They Senate Budget Committee's scheduled to vote on that bill next week. The full Senate is to vote the following week.

And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, he is not the first president to drop below 40 percent in the polls. Others have been there, but not all have recovered. Can President Bush? That story is next.

Plus, we're tracking a monster storm. Where will Wilma head next? A new forecast from the National Hurricane Center is coming up, and we'll bring it to you live.


BLITZER: You're back in THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's get back to our top story this hour, that would be Hurricane Wilma. It's a powerful storm in the Katrina mold that could do major damage to Florida in the coming days.

Let's check in with our severe weather expert Chad Myers. He's joining us from the CNN Hurricane Headquarters in Atlanta. Chad, we're standing by for a new forecast momentarily, but based on what we know right now, how powerful is this storm?

MYERS: This is still more powerful than Katrina or Rita. At a time earlier today, Wolf, it was the strongest, lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin, which is the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean -- the lowest pressure ever that a plane flew through. There may be others that we don't know about hundreds of years ago, but we can't go back and find that out, can we?

There's the storm right there. I'm going to take you to a closer on-view. Look at the wobbling here, Wolf. Look how it wobbles back and forth. It's been doing that all day long. We look at these spaghetti maps, as we call them. These are all the computer simulations that we go through hour after hour. The older ones from earlier today have all take didn't across Florida.

Getting a little curious, though. This afternoon, some of them actually taking it into the Yucatan, stopping the storm, and then turning it south of Cuba. That would be excellent news for Florida. It would be terrible news for Cuba, and terrible news maybe even for Grand Cayman and all the way over to Jamaica. But if this scenario came true, it would be a completely different storm for the United States and for Florida.

Talked about the eye walls a little bit ago, how the concentric eye walls can change. Sometimes there's an inner eye wall and then an outer eye wall around it. That's probably what's happening right now. We're seeing a little bit of loss of intensity, here. But still, the winds aloft are still 175 miles per hour, Wolf.

BLITZER: What does it mean when it wobbles like that?

MYERS: It means that there's not enough wind in any one direction to push it in a real direction. And it's just sitting there in an atmosphere all by itself, and it's actually generating its own movement. We have to wait for a wind, some other wind in the atmosphere, to push it along. And we're waiting for one to come out of the west to eventually push it to the east. That's how it goes from Cancun to Florida in the first place, but right now, there's no wind out there at all.

BLITZER: All right, thanks Chad. We'll check back with you. And to our viewers, remember, the National Hurricane Center is preparing to issue another update on Wilma. That's coming up very soon. We'll carry that news conference live, with Max Mayfield, as soon as it happens. You'll want to know where the hurricane is moving.

Other news we're following, the Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was in the hot seat today, testifying before a House panel investigating the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Chertoff admitted there were failures in the federal response, both before and after the powerful storm slammed into the Gulf coast. Chertoff said he relied on former FEMA director Michael Brown as "battlefield commander" for Katrina.

Brown, as you know, resigned last month after intense criticism. Chertoff did announce today that federal reconnaissance teams will be dispatched following future disasters to try to get a better sense of what's going on in the field.

Meanwhile, more fireworks today in the battle over paying for Katrina. As costs for hurricane recovery keep rising, House Republicans hope to pass a bill tomorrow that would cut $50 billion over five years from such crucial federal programs as Medicare, Medicaid and student loans.

House Democrats object.


REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D) NEW JERSEY: Those who are the survivors of the hurricane, those who are amongst the poorest that the hurricane revealed to us as a nation -- their cuts would actually hurt the very people who, allegedly, this is to help. REP. MIKE PENCE (R) INDIANA: I'm really here to say that House Republicans are united in our commitment to respond to Hurricane Katrina with compassion, generosity and fiscal discipline.

BLITZER: The Senate is also working on budget cuts. Their proposed bill calls for cuts of $35 billion. At some point, they'll have to meet in conference to work out a deal.

President Bush has always expressed a disdain for polls, at least publicly. Lately, he has good reason to be sour of public opinion surveys. The question is what, if anything, can he do about his political problems?

Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider is standing by with thoughts. Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, things look pretty bleak for President Bush right now. Can he recover? Other presidents have. How did they do it?

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Lyndon Johnson tumbled into the 30s in his second term -- the Vietnam War, racial violence, student protests. Did LBJ ever go back up? Yes, briefly, just after he announced he would not run for another term.

Richard Nixon fell during the first year of his second term because of Watergate. Nixon just kept on falling.

President Bush's father had a spectacular fall from near 90 percent support after the Gulf War into the 30s a year later. Everybody knows what brought him down -- the economy, stupid.

Jimmy Carter, same thing, but with a twist. Carter got an initial boost after the seizure of U.S. hostages in Iran. And international crisis can do that for a president, but it doesn't last long.

The 1982 recession brought Ronald Reagan's numbers down, but the economy came roaring back by 1984. And so did Reagan.

Bill Clinton's downturn came in 1994, when Republicans took over Congress, but the comeback kid came back. How? Another economic boom. It got Clinton re-elected.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

SCHNEIDER: It even got him through his year of living dangerously, the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So, can President Bush recover from his troubles? Sure. What's the key? The economy, stupid. President Bush's latest rating on the economy, as of last month, is -- 63 percent negative. Uh-oh.


BLITZER: All right, Bill. Thank you very much. Bill Schneider is our senior political analyst.

Let's check our "Poliltical Radar" right now. Look who had lunch over at the White House today with the president of the United States. It would be the rock star and activist, Bono. He's in town for a U2 concert here in Washington. The White House press secretary Scott McClellan says the two followed up on their recent talks over at the G-8 summit about AIDS, trade and fighting poverty. Bush, Bono, lunch at the White House.

A follow-up now on our reporting on the Clinton connections to the hit TV program "Commander in Chief." CNN confirms longtime Al Gore aide Ron Mclean (ph) has joined the show as a consultant. And former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has signed on as an informal adviser.

As we told you yesterday, two other former aides to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton also work on the fictional tale of the first woman president.

We tried to get a comment, by the way, from the Clinton camp but we are told her advisers are under orders to stay mum about the senator's presidential prospects. That includes a no comment policy on all parallels between Mrs. Clinton and Geena Davis' primetime character on "Commander in Chief.

Up next, the Supreme battle over Harriet Miers. Is the Bush administration winning the war over her nomination? We'll get some expert opinions from Paul Begala and Terry Jeffrey. They're standing by in today's "Strategy Session" here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, the CIA leak and the White House. What's the political fallout for President Bush? That story, lots more, when we return.


BLITZER: Momentarily, we're standing by for an update, a new forecast from the National Hurricane Center in Miami on Hurricane Wilma. We understand there will be specific, new information that's coming out. We'll carry that live. Max Mayfield, standing by to tell us where Hurricane Wilma is heading next. You'll want to stick around for that.

In the meantime, the date is set, but it surely won't be a dance: confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers. It's already causing a buzz up on Capitol Hill, along with continued buzz over the CIA leak investigation.

Joining us now, our CNN political analyst Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, and Terry Jeffrey -- he's editor of "Human Events", a conservative weekly magazine. Thank to both of you for joining us.

Let's talk a little about Harriet Miers. The hearings are going to start, Paul, on November 7. The Democrats say that's not enough time to really get ready. The chairman says that's enough time. PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And the chairman gets to decide. They have the majority. This is good for the White House and good for Ms. Miers because the longer this has stayed out there, the rougher it's been for the president.

He has unusually, really, for about the first time in his presidency, really been unable to consolidate his conservative base. But at the end of the day, I guess they're gambling that folks won't go against her on the Republican Party.

And so, I think, hopefully the president -- Senator Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee is scheduling earlier hearings. Democrats can complain about it but it's not going to do any good.

BLITZER: Because I know Leahy wanted him to -- does not start until after Thanksgiving in December. Clearly, it looks like he's lost that battle.

Terry, listen to what Senator Schumer, Chuck Schumer of New York, a member of the Judiciary Committee said earlier today, once word of this accelerated hearing schedule came out.


SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Going forward on November 7 was a rush to judgment. We know less about this nominee than we've known about just about any other in recent memory, and to push a date for the judiciary hearings without that information didn't make sense. It puts the cart before the horse.


BLITZER: The Democrats are upset, Terry. But you're as plugged into the conservatives as anyone, and a lot them are not very happy about this nomination as well. Are they upset about the scheduled start of these hearings?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, HUMAN EVENTS: No, they're not upset about the schedule, what they're upset about is that so far it's been more than two weeks since the nomination was made, Wolf, and the White House hasn't produced any substantial material that will point to this woman's record on constitutional issues, that she really has a definable point of view on constitutional interpretation.

I don't know what Chuck Schumer is looking for. If it's material that would define her as a Supreme Court justice and how she's going to interpret the constitution, I don't think we're going to get it until she's sitting there under oath in the committee and answering tough questions.

Maybe they're trying to dig for something that has nothing to do with her record on legal issues. That shouldn't be the question here. The question is, what kind of Supreme Court justice she'll make.

BLITZER: Do you think that Democrats are going to vote against her, at least a lot them, and maybe some Republicans, because of that questionnaire and back in 19 -- I think -- 89 she supported a constitutional amendment that would ban abortions?

BEGALA: They may, if that's all they have to go on. The frustration that both sides have -- Terry and I both, I think, share this frustration -- is that there is very little record is there. You know, John Roberts, our new chief justice will a long record. He'd litigated I think 30 cases in front of the Supreme Court. And nobody could deny his qualifications.

They argued about the ideology, but there was enough evidence from his work in the Reagan administration, documents released, that he really was a conservative. With Ms. Miers, we have no idea. We have this little scrap from 1989, that says that she's pro-life and wants to change the Constitution to ban abortion. But we don't know. My hope is -- and it's just a dream, it's a pipe dream -- that she just tells the truth. I think the truth is she wants ...

JEFFREY: An irony about that questionnaire, Wolf, is one of the most hardcore, pro-abortion Democrats on that committee, Dick Durbin of Illinois, was elected to Congress as a hard-core pro-lifer saying he supported a human life amendment just like Harriet Miers did in 1989. So if you can judge how someone's going to view the Constitution from where they stood as a political candidate back in the 1980s, Dick Durbin and Harriet Miers were on the same page back then.

BLITZER: Well, that's fair point. People change their minds over 15 years.

BEGALA: Right, but so why not tell the truth? When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by Bill Clinton, she was one of the foremost advocates for abortion rights in the legal community. All the Republicans, save for about four or five, voted for her.

Justice Scalia put up by President Reagan, one of the foremost opponents of abortion. Every single Democrat voted to confirm him. There was a time when candidates for the court told the truth. Some supported legal abortion, some opposed it, and that's what Ms. Miers should do. She should just tell the truth.

BLITZER: Let's make the term briefly to the CIA leak. Fascinating comment from Mary Matalin, now an informal adviser to the vice president, a friend of ours, all of ours from CNN. Listen to what she's quoted as saying in the "Chicago Tribune," referring to Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. "He" -- referring to Libby -- "is almost a principle, not a staff guy. Part of his influence is his deep knowledge in foreign affairs. I have been describing him as Cheney's Cheney. He does for the vice president what the vice president does for the president."

Those are -- that's a powerful recommendation from her and he could be in legal trouble.

JEFFREY: Well, Wolf, there's no doubt that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove are two very important staffers in this White House. There's no question about it. However, the "Washington Post" this morning in an editorial -- that paper is no friend to the White House -- said that people are rushing to judgment in this case. They said the publicly available information does not point to a crime. They also point out a key fact that many people have forgotten, that there are inaccuracies in Joe Wilson's story he put out in the first place trying to argue that the president lied us into war, but the White House had a legitimate interest in rebutting. May have done it wrong, but there's no evidence yet that they did it illegally.

BLITZER: Last word.

BEGALA: The problem that Terry and the "Washington Post" editorial page have is, they presume the information that's in the public realm is the same thing the prosecutor has. He has a lot more. What we learn in the public today, in the "New York Daily News" though, is that two years ago the president was told that Karl had a role in this, Karl Rove, his top aide, and never told us.

He never revealed it. The president of the United States participated in covering up the information about what his staff did. That is a lie -- probably not a crime, but it's a lie and a serious political problem.

BLITZER: All right. We've got to leave it there, unfortunately. That report in the "Daily News" by Tom DeFrank, a very good reporter, longtime reporter with good connections and sources here in Washington. Thanks very much, Terry and Paul.

Coming up, trouble in the tropics. We have our eyes on a massive storm, but where will Hurricane Wilma go next? The National Hurricane Center is about to give us the latest on the storm. It's only moments away. We'll bring you to you live. Stick around -- a brand new forecast, coming up.



BLITZER: Dr. Max Mayfield of National Hurricane Center, the director, is about to give all of us a new update. Let's listen.

MAYFIELD: We have an airplane out there now. The pressure has come up a little bit from early this morning, but it's still a Category 5 hurricane, and if you look at the satellite imagery behind me, you can see that it's still -- amazingly it still has that small pinhole eye. You don't often see that persist very long, but this one has, and it's maintained that very strong Category 5 intensity.

It's moving very slowly. It's actually wobbling around, but generally, towards the west-northwest about seven miles per hour, and the big question, of course, is the future forecast. And what I think I'll do here is actually show you what we're looking at here at the National Hurricane Center.

You've heard us talking about the last couple of days here, that the computer models have been in very, very good agreement, showing that turn to the north and then northeast and accelerating across Florida out into the Atlantic, while we have really seen some changes in some of the models this afternoon.

I'm going to show you three different models, three of the dozen or so that we look at. The one behind me here, the Navy model that has some new forecast of what we've been showing. It has it racing out here and in five days' time be somewhere between Cape Cod and Bermuda. That's a very fast motion.

Another model is our National Weather Service global model. And this one actually has it on basically the same track but much, much slower than we've been forecasting.

And then there's another one that I'm going to show. This is one of the more sophisticated hurricane models, developed up at the NOAA lab, at Princeton University, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab, and this model actually keeps it down here in the northwest here, being looping around, ends up over western Cuba in five days' time.

So I really want you to have a feeling for what we're looking at here. We have a lot of scatter in these projections now, basically from the northwestern Caribbean all the way out to, off the Northeast United States coastline.

So the forecasters have done about the most reasonable thing they could do here. They've looked at the consensus models, some of the better models we have, and not made any drastic change to the track itself but we have slowed it down. And that is, perhaps, some good news to all of us here in South Florida. We still have the track coming up here towards the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Channel by Friday afternoon.

We still think it's going to be in there. That's really what we're saying this morning also. And then we're continuing to show that northeastern motion, but the motion is much slower than it was this morning. So even by Saturday afternoon, the center of the hurricane is still forecast to be somewhere here off the northwest cast of Cuba, generally headed towards the northeast.

This is a much lower confidence than we normally have, and I just want people to understand that. And, again, we don't want to focus on the exact landfall point. It's way, way too early to do that. If we have the forecast close to being right, that will also likely delay the watches and warnings.

On this particular track, the tropical storm force winds will likely be getting in to the Keys later on Saturday. So the warning for down there would go up probably Friday afternoon and the watch either Friday morning, possibly Thursday evening, if we see some change in the track. So I'm being very honest with you, letting you know the uncertainty that we have. We think we have as good a forecast as we can make, given all these uncertainties.

I will say this. The longer it stays down here in the Caribbean, the more likely it is that we'll see some weakening. And on our current forecast track, we actually have it, by the time it gets in to the Gulf of Mexico, down to a Category 4 hurricane and decreasing down to a Category 3 hurricane after that. I don't want to overemphasize that, because we know that even a Category 3 hurricane can cause considerable damage and we don't want to let our guard down at all. So right now, the best advice is just to continue to monitor this very, very closely. Most of the models still continue to bring it over the Florida Keys and South Florida, then race it out into the Atlantic.

And with that, I'll be glad to take any questions that you might have.

QUESTION: Normally would you say that the models stay on the same path? Is that normal? Is it not normal right now that one of these models is starting to scatter a little bit? Is that...

MAYFIELD: The question is, is this very typical of the models, to change this drastically?

And we see the models flip flop on occasion, but it is unusual to see one model -- perhaps our best hurricane model, you know, this morning it had the five-day forecast up in Maine, and now it has the five-day forecast over western Cuba. So that's -- you know, that's probably over 1,700 miles difference there, and that's a tremendous change. They obviously can't both be right.

But I just want you to have a feel for the uncertainty that we're dealing with here.

QUESTION: Are you considering this hurricane (ph) one of the more perplexing storms that you've seen in a while? And how many more days before you actually know the track (ph)?

MAYFIELD: Well, yes, this is one of the more perplexing storms we've had to deal with this year. But the good news here, this does seem to buy us a little more time.

I think the wisest thing is to just to continue to monitor this very, very closely. We put out that five-day forecast every six hours.

We'll have the NOAA jet. You know, you can't keep that airplane flying (INAUDIBLE) around this hurricane night and day for days and days and days. And so we were giving a down day today. And then tomorrow morning we'll start flying that jet and we'll continue to fly back-to-back missions here until it gets, you know, beyond Florida.

QUESTION: And if it does fall into that third model (INAUDIBLE) for five days, would it be able to gather more strength by that time to make landfall or (INAUDIBLE)?

MAYFIELD: Yes. The question is, on the intensity -- if it were to stall there over the northwestern Caribbean, and if it actually interacts with the Yucatan Channel and then western Cuba and meanders around down there for five days, it likely would weaken even more than forecast. So that, too, would be a good move.

But, again, that's just one model out of a dozen or so that we look at. QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

MAYFIELD: No. The rainfall is -- that's a good question, but the rainfall is obviously (inaudible) the track and how fast it moves. So that's all up in the air, too. A slower motion will increase the amount of rainfall.


MAYFIELD: Well, we could be if that one model is right. We could be looking at this for several more days. And I would say this -- you know, you asked earlier and I never did get to that answer there about how -- when will we really know?

Well, I'm afraid we're really not going to know until it really takes that turn to the northeast. Now, once it commits to that turn to the northeast, we'll, you know, have a lot better feel -- and especially with that jet data getting into the computer models. We'll have a better handle on it then.

But as long as it's down here in the Caribbean moving very, very slowly, and we've been able to see it really kind of just wobbling around like I talked here all day long, you know, there's a lot of uncertainty there. And we're just going to have to watch it -- I wish I had a better answer for you than that.

QUESTION: Will the front hold it down?

MAYFIELD: Well, actually, the -- what is going to happen here in the different scenarios all depend on -- you can see this upper-level low here. We're going to end up here in about two or three days' time with a trough -- mid to upper level trough over the central Gulf of Mexico.

And some of the models have that extending down far enough to the south to pick up Wilma and recurve it out to the northeast. Some models don't bring the trough down as far to the south.

And also, if the short-term forecast is wrong and if the -- the short-term forecast, you know, it's been wobbling a little bit to the left of the official forecast here. If it continues to wobble to the left of the track, that increases the chances that it could stay down in the Caribbean even longer.

QUESTION: I know you've (INAUDIBLE) emergency officials as well, (INAUDIBLE) especially evacuations. So at this point what (INAUDIBLE)?

MAYFIELD: The question is about the coordination with the emergency managers. The hurricane liaison team was activated yesterday morning at 7:00 a.m. And even before that, you know, I've been in contact with Billy Wagoner (ph) down in the Florida Keys, and the Miami-Dade County emergency management folks have been here this afternoon.

We have a briefing usually 15 minutes after the advisory goes out with the state emergency management office up in Tallahassee and all the potentially impacted counties.

So I can assure you we're talking to all these different scenarios with them and we're all on the same page. Don't let there be any doubt about that. The emergency management folks here in Florida at the county levels and up in Tallahassee are really on top of this. And we're also briefing the FEMA headquarters, and the regional team also is in the Gulf coastal states once a day on that briefing.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) the next advisory showed that significant change, you really need to get the jet in there tomorrow before you'll really be able to see what (INAUDIBLE)?

MAYFIELD: Well, the fact is it's not moving much. I mean, it's really -- you know, we can't be that far wrong here in the next day or so, anyway.

We'll be fine here. You can't fly that NOAA jet, you know, night and day forever here. So they needed to have a down day today and then we'll start flying it early tomorrow morning and just really keep it in there. They'll do back-to-back missions until it gets to Florida and then we'll be able to have enough resources to fly in the Atlantic, if it threatens the East Coast of the United States later on.

QUESTION: So when will that next Key advisory be coming out?

MAYFIELD: Well, we're issuing a five-day forecast every six hours. So I'm not sure there is going to a Key advisory there until it makes that turn to the northeast.

And I know everybody wishes we could give you that definitive answer, and if I could, I would, but this is one of those cases where we just have a tremendous amount of uncertainty, and I really want you to -- I want to share that with you and I want you to feel our pain here.

QUESTION: Should most people not let their guard down or should they (INAUDIBLE)?

MAYFIELD: Oh, absolutely people should not let their guard down. Remember, some of these models continue to take it to the north and northeast very, very quickly. And, you know, if we see any indication of that, you know, tonight or tomorrow morning, well, that -- all of that could change.

You know, we're ahead of the game here. We've started -- we had a lot of media requests, actually even last night and today. And that's why we've offered up this little media availability here for you all, and so we're ahead of the game. And I thank you for helping me out.

We don't want to overdo it. But we sure don't want to let down our guard either. This is a Category 5 hurricane, and still one of the lowest pressures ever, you know, in a hurricane in the whole Atlantic Basin since records have been kept.

So no, you don't want to let your guard down, especially if it does start moving faster.

QUESTION: It appears pretty concentric too. It doesn't really have like a weak side (INAUDIBLE)?

MAYFIELD: No. And the slow-moving ones often do appear very symmetric and the, perhaps amazing thing, is that this very small eye wall is still there.

We have evidence from satellite and the aircraft that the outer eye wall is still there also, but it's been sort of amazing to us that, that innermost eye wall has been able to maintain itself. Those 165 mile-per-hour winds are in a very, very limited area -- that little white around the eye itself here that I think you may be able to see on the visible imagery here. But that -- it would be very, very unusual for that to maintain itself, you know, all through the night here.

I suspect that we'll have a weaker hurricane by tomorrow morning, but still a powerful category four hurricane with the wind field spreading out more than we have today.

OK. Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center in Florida, in Miami explaining the latest forecast. Let's digest what we just heard. It's now 5:00 p.m. here on the East Coast and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. There's a good chance, a very good chance, as we just heard, it will hit Florida.