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Bush's Iraq Pitch and Poll Numbers; Censuring Bush?

Aired March 13, 2006 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.

Happening now, it's 7:00 p.m. here in Washington. The war in Iraq comes home to roost for President Bush. Our latest poll numbers showing his approval rating at a new low. Will an uneasy public answer his appeal for patience?

Just a month ago, he was a top White House adviser with an unlimited future. Now his future could include prison after an arrest as an alleged swindler. What happened?

And it's 4:00 p.m. in Los Angeles. Born and raised in the Muslim world, a Syrian-American world lashes out at militant Islamists. Is she a heroine or a heretic?

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

Tonight, President Bush at rock bottom in our new poll. Here's the headline number first unveiled right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Only 36 percent of Americans now say they approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job. That's an all-time low in the CNN- "USA- Today"-Gallup poll. And it's not the only figure that may be giving the White House fits.

Look at this. Sixty percent of those surveyed now say things are going poorly in Iraq. That's up seven points since January alone. And it's another indicator of how the Iraq conflict is weighing on the public, the president and his poll numbers.

The president addressed his Iraq problem head on today. He launched yet another series of speeches aimed at convincing Americans that the Iraq mission is worth it. At the same time, he tried to show that he gets why people are growing more and more sour about the overall situation in Iraq. All of this just days before the United States marks three years since the Iraq invasion.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle, and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come. The terrorists are losing on the field of battle, so they're fighting this war through the pictures we see on television and in the newspapers every day. They're hoping to shake our resolve and force us to retreat. They're not going to succeed.


BLITZER: Let's talk about the president's latest Iraq pitch and the poll numbers.

Our White House correspondent, Dana Bash, is joining us. Also, John King and John Roberts.

Dana, first to you. What are they saying at the White House?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're saying they hope that this will try to make a little bit of a difference in the way the public perceives Iraq, Wolf, but they're -- they've learned their lesson the hard way in terms of public opinion in Iraq, that no matter what the president says, it is the images on the ground that turned public opinion.

So basically, what they're trying to do with this speech and the others to come is try to put those images and what's going on there in context. And it's certainly a very difficult thing to do. They recognize that here, and that is why it's a lot of repetition, a lot of familiar themes that we've heard today, that we've heard over the past year.

BLITZER: What are you hearing, John King, from your sources here in Washington?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'll tell you what Republican strategists are most worried about. The president, of course, is trying to sell his strategy in Iraq because he's worried most of all about his legacy. Republican strategists are worried about this November. And two numbers in this new poll trouble them quite a bit.

The president's approval rating among Republicans is down 16 points from a year ago. Still at 75 percent, but down from 91 percent a year ago. Reliable Republicans a bit nervous about this president, at least a growing number of them.

And the president's support among senior citizen, the most reliable voters in a midterm off-year election, is down dramatically. They don't like the prescription drug plan, they also don't like the way things are going in Iraq.

Now, it is only March. Republicans say plenty of time to turn things around. But those two numbers, dissatisfaction among Republicans and senior citizens, have those worried about congressional elections quite worried.

BLITZER: John Roberts, you just spent the weekend, at least much of the weekend, with a whole bunch of Republicans down in Memphis, Tennessee. How worried are they?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're not ready to slit their wrists just yet, Wolf, but they're certainly saying thank goodness it's March and not September. One Republican pollster that I talked to today said when you're in the low 40s, as President Bush was for so long, you still have a pulse, but when you get down below 40, then you get into very difficult terrain as far as presidential standing goes.

You know, leadership was his strongest suit, and now, according to one Republican pollster, he's being found wanting on that front. As John King said, they still believe they've got time to turn it around.

One Republican pollster said that they would like to see President Bush up above 45 percent by September, by Labor Day, in order for Republicans to do well in November. But another Republican pollster told me that President Bush might have to make some pretty dramatic moves in terms of approval by June, because that's when voters' opinions will pretty much be fixed.

BLITZER: Are you picking up, Dana, any indications of a personnel shakeup at the White House?

BASH: You know, there certainly is a lot of talk about that, Wolf. That is not new.

There has been pressure on this White House really since the end of last year, the time where we saw the Harriet Miers debacle, we saw the fact that Scooter Libby got indicted. A lot of issues that really were pressing on this White House, and many people, many friends of this White House, said enough is enough, there are a lot of very tired people at the helm here, and they have to be replaced.

But they insist, even -- even now, even given the numbers we just talked about and a whole other -- whole host of issues they have, they say at this point the president is sticking with his senior staff, including his chief of staff. A lot of talk again about the fact that perhaps he would leave and go somewhere else. The people here say not so fast.

BLITZER: I assume you agree with me, John King, that writing of Karl Rove and the political wizards over at the White House would not necessarily be a good idea.

KING: I wouldn't write them off. They had a very successful strategy in 2002, they had a very successful strategy in 2004, but that strategy was based on turning out the vote, doing a better job of turning out the vote.

That's why some Republicans are worried, Wolf. They see a bit of dissatisfaction brewing among the hard-core conservative Republicans. And even look at the economic numbers.

The president -- 60 percent of the American people think the economy is doing well, and yet this president's approval rating is heading down. To turn a phrase from the 1992 campaign, "It's not the economy, stupid. It's Iraq, Mr. President."

BLITZER: And Iraq, John Roberts, is clearly hovering over this White House, shall we say, big time?

ROBERTS: As one Republican strategist told me this afternoon, Wolf, it's all about Iraq, and they don't know how President Bush is going to get out from underneath it.

On the economy, the Democrats have regained their typical edge that they've had over the Republicans. And President Bush can't get credit for anything happening with the economy, even though 15 percent of Americans now believe that the economy is very good. And the reason, according to Republicans I talked to today, Iraq is overshadowing absolutely everything.

BLITZER: John Roberts, thanks very much.

John King, Dana Bash, thanks to both of you as well.

President Bush may be having a tough time in the polls, but he's in good company. Look at this, Ronald Reagan dropped to a 35 percent approval rating back in 1983. He then went on to win reelection.

Others have sunk even lower. Approval ratings for Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, the president's father, and Richard Nixon all -- all dropped below 30 percent. Bill Clinton's lowest mark, that was 37 percent. That was way before, way before Monica Lewinsky and impeachment.

Remember, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time.

CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Let's go to CNN's Zain Verjee. She's joining us now with a quick look at some other headlines making news.

Hi, Zain.


The Agriculture Department confirms the third U.S. case of mad cow disease. This time it's been found in a cow in Alabama. After euthanizing the cow, a local vet sent tissue off for testing. The nation's chief veterinarian says the animal did not enter the food supply. Investigators are trying to determine the cow's exact age and its origin.

The federal death penalty trial of confessed 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is in danger of being declared a mistrial. The judge will hold a special hearing tomorrow. She says transcripts of opening statements that were sent to several witnesses may seriously taint the prosecution's case. The judge says the disclosure blatantly violates an order that she handed down last month.

And people across the Midwest are assessing the damage after a weekend of violent storms that produced a record number of tornadoes. At least 110 twisters were reported.

Nine people died in Missouri, where the governor declared a state of emergency. A 10th person was killed in Indiana.

Seven counties in Illinois are under state disaster declarations. Thousands of homes, Wolf, were damaged or destroyed.

BLITZER: Heartbreaking pictures. Thanks very much, Zain, for that.

Let's go back to New York right now. Once again, CNN's Jack Cafferty standing by with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.


I'm quoting here. "I'm a liberal and I make no apologies for it. Hell, I'm proud of it." That's actor George Clooney making his political affiliations known, just incase you weren't sure after his speech at the Oscars.

Clooney went on to slam some Democrats in his comments that were posted on "The Huffington Post" today.

Quoting again. "The fear of being criticized can be paralyzing. Just look at the way so many Democrats caved in the run-up to the war. In 2003, a lot of us were saying, where is the link between Saddam and bin Laden? What does Iraq have to do with 9/11?"

We knew it was b.s., which is why it drives me crazy to hear all these Democrats saying, 'We were misled.' It makes me want to shout, 'You weren't misled. You were afraid of being called unpatriotic.'"

Here's the question: Should George Clooney's comments matter to the Democrats?

E-mail us at or go to

BLITZER: Good question, Jack. Thanks very much.

There's another new barometer today on the say the state of the Bush presidency. A leading Democratic senator and possible presidential candidate is calling for Mr. Bush to be censured formally by the United States Congress for authorizing secret wiretaps without warrants. But Russ Feingold now finds himself out on a limb and open to attack by the vice president of the United States.

Our congressional correspondent, Ed Henry, he's standing by with details.

Ed, tell our viewers what's going on.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is an extremely rare process, basically. It's only been one time -- you have to go all the way back to the 1830s to see President Andrew Jackson was censured by the Congress. But Senator Feingold says now this is needed because he's frustrated that the Senate Intelligence Committee did not move forward on an investigation of the president's domestic surveillance program.

He believes the president misled the public and this is the only way to hold the administration's feet to the fire. Take a listen.


SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: When the president of the United States breaks the law, he must be held accountable. That is why today I'm introducing a resolution to censure President George W. Bush.

The president authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens, on American soil, and then misled the Congress and the public about the existence and the legality of that program. It is up to this body to reaffirm the rule of law by condemning the president's actions.


HENRY: Now, with Feingold considering a run for president, many Republicans up here on the Hill dismiss this as posturing for 2008. But rather than ignore it, Vice President Cheney, who happened to be appearing in Feingold's home state of Wisconsin today, decided to go right on the attack, fire back at Feingold. Take a listen.


RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The junior senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, believes the terrorist surveillance program is grounds for censuring the president. The president clearly has the authority to direct the National Security Agency to collect the communications of our enemies in wartime.


HENRY: Now, while Democratic leaders up here on the Hill joined Feingold in raising questions about the legality of this program, many of them are likely to go against this censure resolution. In fact, that's why Republicans are thinking about quick consideration of the resolution.

They think most Democrats will end up shooting it down, but Feingold doesn't care. He thinks regardless of the outcome, all of this debate will basically shine more light on his effort to bring accountability to the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, thanks very much.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, fall from grace. A former White House adviser accused of ripping off department stores in a refund scam. Find out what caused this political star to fall.

Also, President Bush hits a new low in the polls. One of the president's toughest critics on the war, Congressman John Murtha, and a staunch Republican supporter, David Dreier, they're both right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And an American intellectual speaks out against Islamic terrorism on Al-Jazeera television. Now -- get this -- she's facing death threats at home. You'll hear her story, you'll meet her right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There's a tornado on the ground. Let's check in with Jacqui Jeras for the latest -- Jacqui.


BLITZER: Other news we're watching, a former top White House adviser could be facing up to 15 years, yes, 15 years in prison. Claude Allen is accused of theft and ripping off department stores with a refund scam.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, has more.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It's the mug shot that stunned many.

BUSH: My first reaction was one of disappointment, deep disappointment.

MALVEAUX: President Bush's former top domestic policy adviser, Claude Allen, a devout church and family man, arrested for allegedly swindling two department stores out of $5,000 of merchandise.

BUSH: If the allegations are true, something went wrong in Claude Allen's life.

MALVEAUX: Authorities say Allen went to Target and Hecht's more than 25 times. There, he would allegedly buy items, drop them off at his car, and then go back inside with his receipt. He would then allegedly pick up the same items and try to return them to get a refund.

While Allen refuses to comment about the charges, his attorney tells CNN he's innocent.

MALLON SNYDER, CLAUDE ALLEN'S ATTORNEY: Mr. Allen intends to establish that this is all a mistake.

MALVEAUX: Allen was a rising star in the Bush administration, one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in the White House. But on February 9, Allen abruptly resigned from his post, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Police say they began investigating Allen January 2nd, when they confronted him allegedly making a fraudulent return. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan says Allen reported the incident to the White House chief of staff that evening and later to White House counsel Harriet Miers. SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The way he explained it to Harriet was that he was returning some merchandise and there was some confusion with some credit cards because he had moved a number of times.

MALVEAUX: McClellan said because Allen had undergone extensive background checks as a White House official, he was given the benefit of the doubt.

(on camera): I spoke with Claude Allen on his last day here at the White House. I asked him about some rumors circulating around his departure. He simply laughed and dismissed them, but he did say that he'd been carrying his resignation later in his briefcase since December, that he'd been long ready to go.

Susan Malveaux, CNN, the White House.


BLITZER: If he's convicted, Claude Allen would be in -- would be the latest in a long line of high-profile people who risked it all for no apparent reason.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us with more on this part of the story -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, experts say the majority of people who commit those crimes are what they call non-professional thieves. Now, among the well connected who do it, the question of motivation raises some fascinating and complex issues.


TODD (voice-over): Winona Ryder made millions for every movie, then was convicted of lifting a few thousand dollars of merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue store.

Former Miss America Bess Meyerson was New York City's cultural commissioner when she was arrested for shoplifting. The fine was more than her $44 take from the store. Jennifer Capriati had already struck a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal when she was still in her teens. But a citation for lifting a cheap ring from a jewelry store was one factor threatening her tennis career.

Why do people with so much to lose put it all on the line for so little?

ALAN LIPMAN, CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGIST: These people are stressed. They're under tremendous conflict. And they're often looking for a way out.

TODD: Criminal psychologist Alan Lipman says that and other factors could explain why well-connected shoplifters with no need to steal do so anyway. Among the reasons, acting out of anger, taking retribution for setbacks in their lives. For some, the thrill of showing rebellious dark sides to otherwise exemplary lives. For others, acting out because they're humble or deprived backgrounds make them feel they do not deserve success. One other very common trait is more simple.

LIPMAN: The presence of an antisocial personality which leads a person to believe that they can skate by, that they can get by, that they can cut corners, and they won't be caught.


TODD: Lipman and other experts say there are people in government, business, all levels of society who have anti-social personality disorder. Many of them very effective at their jobs, until, as one expert says, one day the disguise slips -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you very much.

Brian Todd reporting.

Still to come, the war in Iraq helped send the president's poll numbers plunging. What could he do? What should he do? I'll ask Congressman John Murtha and Congressman David Dreier. They'll join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, the author of "The Da Vinci Code" is accused of stealing the idea for his best-selling book. Now he takes the stand. We'll have the details of Dan Brown's testimony.



BLITZER: Let's check back with Zain once again for some other news making headlines around the world -- Zain.

VERJEE: Wolf, a fresh wave of violence swept over Iraq today. In the single deadliest attack, a roadside bomb killed five Iraqi police officers and a civilian bystander responding to a false report of bodies at a store in Tikrit. Fifteen other policemen were wounded. Elsewhere, bomb blasts in and near Baghdad killed 11, more people including a U.S. soldier.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says despite human rights issues, Indonesia has earned the right to resume close military ties with the U.S. Rice was on her way to the world's most populous Muslim country today when she made her assessment. She cites Indonesia's cooperation in anti-terror investigations. The U.S. lifted a six-year arms embargo against Indonesia last fall.

And Dan Brown says that charges that he stole the framework for his book "The Da Vinci Code" from two other writers is "completely fanciful." Brown testified today at a London trial in which the other authors claim essentially that he lifted ideas from their 1982 nonfiction book, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail," and they're basically suing for copyright infringement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of money involved here. Thanks very much, Zain, for that.

VERJEE: There always is.

BLITZER: Just ahead, tough times for the president. We'll get some advice for him from a close ally and a harsh critic. Congressman David Dreier and Congressman John Murtha, they'll join us in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, she's a Syrian-American who spoke her mind about Islam. Now some say she's a heroine, others call her a heretic. Her story coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Now back to our lead story. President Bush's approval rating now at an all-time low. Just 36 percent of those surveyed in our new poll say they approve of the way Mr. Bush is doing his job. The poll shows Americans are increasingly anxious about the situation in Iraq.

Among them, a supporter-turned-leading critic of the president on the war, Democratic Congressman John Murtha.


BLITZER: Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

I take it you're not surprised by the plummeting of the president's poll numbers, especially when it comes to Iraq.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, Wolf, that's been the problem. It's been rhetoric.

They get on and they make speeches, the secretary of defense, the president, and so forth. In the meantime, the public knows better.

The statements they made turned out to be a mischaracterization of what's going on. They are now calling what they're called a dead- end kid (ph), then they called an insurgency, now they're calling it secular violence. It's a civil war, and our troops are caught in between, and the public knows it.

Every place I go people come up to me and they say, you know, "You're right, keep speaking out, because we believe there's no chance of winning it." I said a year ago, as you know, Wolf, you can't win this military. And they keep using rhetoric for the answer.

Let's take these IEDS. That's the roadside bombs. Two and a half years ago, I came back from Iraq and I said to the secretary of defense, we need to do something about these roadside bombs. Since that time, there have been 10,000 casualties from roadside bombs. And they now put another task force together and they keep making a big play.

The president finally is talking about it two and a half years after I brought it to the attention of the secretary of defense. That's why the American public is upset.

BLITZER: The concern that a lot of people expressed, including a lot of your fellow Democrats, is that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would merely fuel this civil war, and that if the U.S. simply pulled out right now over the next six months, shall we say, there would be nothing that really effectively would stop all hell from breaking loose out in Iraq.

MURTHA: Wolf, we're in a civil war right now, and our troops are caught in between. Sixty percent of the Iraqis say there will be less chance -- it will be more stable if the United States pulls out. All the countries in the periphery say the same thing.

We have united the enemies against us. There are three countries in particular -- or three groups that want us to stay there. One is the al Qaeda. There are only 1,000 al Qaeda there and 25,000 insurgents who are civil war participants. Iran wants us there and China.

Now why do they want us there? Because we're using up our financial resources and our personnel resource. We're killing and hurting people and we're draining the resources of the United States. And the American public knows that.

We responded slowly to Katrina. We haven't had the money at home to do the things that need to be done. We have got a Medicare problem, a Social Security problem, and we will have spent by the end of this year $450 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So this war is draining us and it's hurting the future of the military. And all of the military leaders say you can't win it militarily. So what is the purpose of what is going on? The worst poll of all, Wolf, is the poll taken of the troops themselves. Seventy-two percent of the troops don't understand -- or 42 percent of the troops don't understand why there and 72 percent would like to get out within a year.

Now, when I introduced my original resolution, I said redeploy as quickly as possible. I didn't say immediately. I said as quickly as possible. Then a reporter asked me a question, how long would it take?

I said well if they decided to get out, they could do it within six months. I'll tell you what worries me about a prolonged withdrawal because the less troops that are there on the ground, the more vulnerable they are to the roadside bombs and to attacks by the enemy.

Obviously they're not letting up. The incidents are increasing. That's the problem, they keep mischaracterizing, say things are getting better, 18 provinces are better. Well four provinces got 40 percent of the population and that's where most of the action is.

BLITZER: All right, well let me just be precise. You said six months. Are you now saying that a withdrawal should be much quicker? MURTHA: No I've always said that we could get out as quickly as possible. I'm advocating we start a timetable for withdrawal right now. I think we give the Iraqis the incentive to take over the country themselves.

Let's look at the political situation, how badly we bungled that. First place, they were for a guy name Allawi, that was their prime minister. He got eight percent of the vote. And then we're for Chalabi, that's the Defense Department, that's the -- Defense Department likes him. He got one percent of the vote.

So we haven't done very well politically and militarily, you cannot win this type of a war. We're caught in a civil war and everything we try to do makes us enemies. So my feeling has been, yes, we should start a timetable to withdraw as quickly as possible. And I think Democrats and Republicans will come around to this, Wolf.

BLITZER: John Murtha, Democrat from Pennsylvania, he's been to Iraq several times, very outspoken, very passionate on this issue. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

MURTHA: Nice to be here.


BLITZER: A blow for President Bush today. As we noted, a new CNN "USA Today" Gallup poll shows his job approval rating at a new low as Americans voice deep concerns over the war in Iraq. Are the president's fellow Republicans feeling the fallout?

Joining us now from Capitol Hill Republican Congressman David Dreier of California, the chairman of the rules committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us. How is President Bush handling his job as president? Only 36 percent approve of the job he's doing, 60 percent disapprove. That's rock bottom as far as our poll is concerned. What's going on?

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, I will tell you what's going on. Obviously, there is not a high level of support right now for the president. I think that if you look at the policies that he's pursuing, of keeping our economy growing, focusing on winning the global war on terror, he should be enjoying broader support.

I think that as we look at the third anniversary of our move against Saddam Hussein, the president made a decision and he started today. He's going to be focusing on the success that we're enjoying in Iraq, the challenges that we have and what we need to do to keep things going.

President Bush believes, as I do, and I will tell you our Republican conference believes, and that is if you focus on good public policy, politics will follow. Obviously, we are not at a high point right now, but I'm convinced that we have a great chance to continue with good public policy and to see those numbers improve. BLITZER: We've already seen some of your fellow Republicans running away from the president on the issue of that Dubai Ports deal. Presumably, there could be more of this distancing going on. You understand why a lot of Republicans right now don't necessarily want to be associated with the president?

DREIER: Well, there may be some, but I will tell you, that by and large, the policies that the president is pursuing are the policies that we as Republicans want to pursue as well. We know that there was mishandling and the White House acknowledged mishandling of the Dubai Ports World deal. And we are what we are.

I think that it's very important for us to recognize that that issue is behind us. We need to make sure that we continue to pursue, as the president wants to, our global leadership role, economically and geopolitically and militarily. And we need to do everything that we can to continue down the road towards free trade, opening up new markets for U.S. goods and services around the world.

So we can't let this challenge of Dubai Ports World create a problem there. But I will tell you the silver lining that has come out of the DPW deal is the fact that we need to focus on the importance of enhancing port security so that we do diminish any kind of terrorist threat that we have.

BLITZER: Let me give you two more poll numbers. And we'll talk about them. Which party would do a better job dealing with Iraq? Forty-eight percent said Democrats. Forty percent said Republicans.

But check this out, Congressman. Which party would do a better job dealing with the economy, which is your bread and butter issue? Fifty-three percent said Democrats, 38 percent said Republicans. This at a time when 59 percent thought the economy was in good shape right now.

DREIER: You know, I'm glad that 59 percent are indicating it. We have, as you know, Wolf, a 4.8 percent unemployment rate. We've seen actually budget surpluses, budget surpluses for the months of December and January.

BLITZER: But why do they think Democrats would do better?

DREIER: The short answer, I'm going give you something that a political person is not supposed to say. I don't know. It is a total disconnect to me because every indicator is positive. Minority home ownership at an all-time high. We are seeing people who are at the lower and middle end of the economic spectrum see their standard of living improve.

And so I think one of the things that people have often said is when the economy is strong they focus on other things. And I think also if you look out there, there are detractors. I mean, as I listen to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, the Democratic leadership talk about this, you would think that we are days away, if we're not already, in an economic downturn that makes the Great Depression look like a cakewalk. The fact is that as much as they want to talk the economy down, we have continued good news, but we're not going to be satisfied until every American who wants a job has a job.

BLITZER: David Dreier is a Republican from California. He has got a tough job right now ahead of him. We'll see how you do, Congressman.

DREIER: Thanks very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: And to our viewers, remember you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where political news is arriving all of the time. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Up ahead, an unlikely critic of Islam getting death threats right now for what she said about the faith. She'll join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about why some people are calling her a heretic. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Born and raised in the Muslim world, now an American citizen, she recently went on al Jazeera television to criticize intolerance and violence by Muslims. Her comments have sparked a violent reaction. CNN's Chris Lawrence is joining us now from Los Angeles with this incredible story, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some of the names that she's been called are so vulgar you can't even repeat them here, but apparently even that's not enough to stop this former Muslim from speaking out against Islam.


(voice-over): She's a professional doctor and suburban soccer mom. A wife and mother who gets dozens of death threats at home.

DR. WAFA SULTAN: Your end is very near. We will kill you.

LAWRENCE: Read her e-mails, you Syrians are the scum of the world. We will cut off your arms and legs. You will go to hell.

SULTAN: They might kill me, but there is no way they can kill my message.

LAWRENCE: Her message?

SULTAN: Everything is wrong with Islam.

LAWRENCE: Wafa Sultan says she grew up in Syria and saw radical Muslims commit murder. She left the Middle East and Islam. Now in suburban Los Angeles, she says the problems are not with the way people practices lamb, but The Koran itself.

SULTAN: When you teach your child to kill whoever non-Muslim, the problem with the thought, not with the child. LAWRENCE: Sultan first said some of these same things during the debate on al Jazeera TV. Thousands saw the broadcast, a million more on the Internet. Sultan's been condemned for saying Islam is corrupt for comparing Muslim suicide bombers to the Jews who survived the holocaust.

Even some moderate Muslims who agree that Islam need reform criticize Sultan.

Hussam Eyloush is with the Council on Islamic Relations. He says Sultan left Islam and now wants to tear it down from the outside.

HUSSAM AYLOUSH, COUNCIL ON AMER-ISLAMIC RELATIONS: When someone blanket a whole religion and labels a whole religion as beyond reform. This is nothing short of Islamophobia.

LAWRENCE: Sultan says she may be the most unlikely critic of Islam, but she won't stop any time soon.

SULTAN: I can assure you my voice is much stronger than they believe.


LAWRENCE (on camera): Moderate Muslims say she's repeating some of what they've been saying for years. Stop the suicide bombings and allow more rights for women. Wolf?

BLITZER: Chris, thanks very much. She certainly touched a nerve in the Muslim world. Is Wafa Sultan feeling the heat for her outspoken comments?

Dr. Sultan, thanks so much for joining us. One of the leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California said this, "Reform is alive and well within Islam, but it will only happen by those from within Islam and not those who hate Islam."

You abandoned Islam years ago, is that right?

SULTAN: You know what? If I hate Islam let me make it very clear, I cannot hate Islam to the point Islam hates me. I am not trying to insult the faith of Islam. I am trying to defend myself as a woman, as a human being again, against the insult of Islam.

BLITZER: What has been the reaction to your words on al Jazeera to your life? How has this impacted your life?

SULTAN: You know, people ask me if I am afraid, and I would like to make it clear that I am not afraid. My message has been said. My books have been written. They might kill me, but there is no way they can kill my message. There is no way they can kill my message. There is no way they can kill my books. I will keep doing it. My goal is noble. My determination is great. People's reactions are very supportive and encouraging. Why shouldn't I believe in victory?

BLITZER: Have you received death threats? SULTAN: I have received too many of them. But they're not going to be able to change my way.

BLITZER: Will you continue to speak out on al Jazeera and other television stations around the world?

SULTAN: Absolutely. Whenever I am invited. I am ready to do it again and again and again. It doesn't matter how long it's going to take me.

BLITZER: Dr. Sultan, you're a very courageous woman, thanks so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

SULTAN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

BLITZER: Up ahead, why money matters. It has some conservatives at odds with President Bush. Our Ali Velshi has been looking into this issue. He'll join us with "The Bottom Line."

Plus, should George Clooney's comments matter to the Democrats? It's our question of the hour. Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail.


BLITZER: This just coming in. We're keeping a close eye on some severe weather across the country. Once again Jacqui Jeras joining us with what's going on. What is happening right now, Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Northern Alabama is just getting pummeled right now, Wolf. We've had numerous reports of possible tornado touchdowns, but very little damage. So some good news there. We were also getting a lot reports of damage, and hail.

We have got one report of a tornado on the ground at this time. This is in Blount County in central Alabama. This is the cell of concern right here. Spotters are reporting a tornado near Cleveland. It's moving to the east at 35 miles per hour.

We also have warnings in Jefferson, Walker and Tuscaloosa counties. A dangerous situation here tonight, and watches are posted across parts of the Deep South through 11:00 and 12:00 tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jacqui, very much. We'll stay in close touch about you.

As we showed you earlier, President Bush's approval rating at a new low, 36 percent, but it's not just the war in Iraq that's dragging him down. Some conservatives are unhappy with the way he's actually handling the economy. Ali Velshi is in New York. He's got "The Bottom Line" -- Ali.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, being conservative can mean many things. Being socially conservative on matters like gay marriage or abortion, being ideologically conservative on matters of powers of the court or Congress, or being economically conservative.

Americans have traditionally associated Republicans with the fiscal conservatism of balanced budgets and controlled spending. But now all that seems to have changed.


VELSHI (voice-over): Cats might as well be sleeping with dogs. According to a CNN/"USA Today" poll, 53 percent of Americans trust the Democrats to run the economy. Only 38 percent say the Republicans are doing a better job.

DAVID KEATING, CLUB FOR GROWTH: Certainly the issues of taxes, lower taxes, government spending, reasonable budgeting -- those are issues that Republicans have owned for quite some time, and they're in a real danger of furthering those issues away.

VELSHI: It seems fiscal conservatives, those who liked the way Ronald Reagan kept the government small, kept taxes low and kept spending in line with revenues, are asking President Bush, who are you, and what are you doing with my economy?

BRUCE BARTLETT, AUTHOR, "IMPOSTOR": To me, Ronald Reagan's philosophy of limited government is really the core of what traditional conservatives believe in, and basically what the Republican Party believes in. And I think Bush has gone off in a completely different direction.

VELSHI: If Reagan symbolized fiscal conservative, Roosevelt symbolized fiscal liberalism. His New Deal was the epitome of big government and social welfare, policies which, despite their noble intentions, caused the government to spend more money than it took in, creating deficits. Republicans typically loathed deficits. But not these Republicans, it seems.

KEATING: Reagan also vetoed some spending bills. Bush has not vetoed a single bill of any kind.

VELSHI: The Bush administration says spending on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a big part of the record $423 billion deficit that's expected this year. The last time the government spent within its means, Bill Clinton was president.


VELSHI: Now, the debt, all of those deficits combined has gone from $5.7 trillion when George W. Bush took the helm to over $8.2 trillion today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ali, thanks very much. Ali with "The Bottom Line."

Let's find out what's coming up on "PAULA ZAHN NOW." That begins right at the top of the hour. Hi, Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. That's just about seven minutes from now. We're going to catch up with the latest developments in that shocking death of a New York City graduate student. DNA evidence now links her death to the prime suspect in the case. So why hasn't he been charged? We'll try to answer that question tonight with some really smart people.

Also, two men disappeared after being picked up by the same sheriff's deputy in Florida. He says he dropped them off at a gas station, but what does he know that he's not telling any of us? Well, CNN investigates this fascinating story, Wolf, and we'll have it for you at the top of the hour. It's really a bizarre one as well. It's fascinating.

BLITZER: Thank you, Paula. We'll see you in a few minutes. "PAULA ZAHN NOW" beginning right at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Just moments ago, we received word that the World Health Organization has confirmed bird flu killed three people in Azerbaijan. Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner is joining us with more -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the World Health Organization is keeping track of the totals on their Web site. You can see it's 98 down here, but that does not include the three deaths we just heard of.

We want to give you a resource to check out online. This is an interagency development. They're working on mapping, to try to keep track of bird flu. and I spoke to Dr. Nabarro at the United Nations; this is his go-to source, and you can see it at home.

Take a look at Azerbaijan right here. Now, the very first case of bird flu in poultry was discovered there in February 2006. They're also looking at maps like this, that juxtapose human and poultry density in relationship to migratory bird patterns. And you can see how this is speared. This is '96 to 2003. All you can see is this little spot right here.

Take a look at how this spread in '04, and then you can see right here how this has spread through March of '06 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jacki, thanks very much.

Still ahead, he has a nice shiny statuette, but should George Clooney's comments be taken seriously by Democrats? Jack has your e- mail.


BLITZER: Let's go right to New York and Jack Cafferty -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf. Actor George Clooney, who is increasingly sounding like somebody who wants to run for office, had some harsh words for Democrats today. In an online column, Clooney calls himself a liberal, he goes on to criticize Democrats who quote, "caved in" during the run-up to the war in Iraq and who now say they were misled.

So the question is, should George Clooney's comments matter to the Democratic Party?

Ben writes from Denmore, Pennsylvania: "Yes, Jack. They should. He's more intelligent than Ronald Reagan, and more friendly, too. Good night, Jack, and good luck."

Bill writes from Dickson, Tennessee: "If George Clooney isn't on any ballot, why should Democrats or any other political party care what he says?"

Daniel writes: "Democratic leaders better start listening to someone and doing something. The American people are not interested in voting for someone who is not George Bush. They want real leadership and ideas."

Shawn writes from Palo Alto: "Yes, and it would have been a good idea to listen to other Americans, too. We should all have a voice and shouldn't be sidelined, or labeled unpatriotic when we speak out. It's unpatriotic to not speak up when your country is being taken to war."

Frank writes: "Absolutely, Democrats should listen to his comments. The Democrats are the most emasculated bunch of weenies I've ever seen. It's a good thing they weren't in charge of establishing this country, or we'd still be a British colony."

And Mary writes from California: "I'm so proud to be a liberal, and just as proud of Mr. Clooney. You go, hot stuff!" I guess Mary is probably referring to Mr. Clooney as hot stuff.

BLITZER: No, I think she's referring to you, Jack. I think Mary is referring to Jack Cafferty.

CAFFERTY: I don't think so.

BLITZER: That's my guess. Jack, how did they break down? A lot of support for George Clooney?

CAFFERTY: Yes, yes, a lot of support for what he said, and you know, I guess rightfully so. The guy makes a pretty good impression, and he, you know, can put a coherent sentence together. But he is starting to sound like a candidate, don't you think, or a potential candidate?

BLITZER: Hey, Jack, good night and good luck.

See you tomorrow. "PAULA ZAHN" starts right now.