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President Bush Back In Washington Without Drastic New Action On Iraq To Show Critics; Parliamentary Revolt Turning Iraqi Government Into Political War Zone; John Kerry Interview; Will Al Gore Run Again?; Tom Vilsack Throws Hat in Ring for '08

Aired November 30, 2006 - 16:00   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 today's top stories.
Happening now, President Bush stands firmly with the Iraqi prime minister and sticks to his guns about getting the job done.

But is Nuri al-Maliki's power base in Baghdad crumbling even as the bloodshed builds?

It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where Mr. Bush is returning home from Iraq crisis talks.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats poised to take power don't sound very impressed by the president's summit statements.

Will a blue ribbon panel's recommendations give them something to rally behind?

We have new details on that report.

And I'll ask Senator John Kerry what Democrats can do and will do to try to bring the troops home.

And one Democratic presidential hopeful now is really off and running. We're going to tell you who's the first Democrat to make it official, while others still are testing the waters.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


President Bush is back here in Washington without any drastic new action on Iraq to show his critics. He wrapped up crisis talks in Jordan by again rejecting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops and denying he's searching for a graceful exit from the war.

Mr. Bush did deliver a vote of confidence for Nuri al-Maliki, even as the Iraqi prime minister is plagued by political turmoil at home. Officials loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are continuing to boycott the government and now are talking of forging a new alliance in the parliament.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is in Baghdad.

Our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel, is up on Capitol Hill.

But let's go to the White House first.

Our correspondent Ed Henry has the latest from there -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president just arrived back here at the White House after this brief summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and almost immediately the president will have to confront this Iraq Study Group bipartisan report that will be released next Wednesday.

Highly anticipated what their proposals will say. Three sources close to that commission now confirming to CNN that the Iraq Study Group will call for a gradual pullback of U.S. troops from Iraq but, more importantly, will not call for a timetable for actually withdrawing those forces.

The bipartisan panel will also recommend that early next year, the president communicate directly to the Iraqi prime minister some benchmarks to improve the situation on the ground and send a clear signal that U.S. troops are not staying there forever.

But, again, no specific timetable, something the president has repeatedly rejected, including today in Jordan.


GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll be in Iraq until the job is complete, at the request of a sovereign government elected by the people. I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there.


HENRY: Now, one adviser to the Iraq Study Group telling CNN privately that there were basically about five options on the table, ranging from a conservative sort of stay the course to a liberal withdraw the U.S. troops quickly from Iraq.

But commissioners seem to have settled on what some advisers were jokingly calling "The 2.5 Plan," and that it was sort of a hybrid, a mix and match of the various five options that were on the table. Advisers to the panel acknowledged privately they may be facing some heavy criticism next week that this is really a copout, that the report doesn't have teeth by not calling for a timetable. But they say quite candidly, they just did not have a consensus on getting a timetable -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're seeing the video of the president getting off Marine One. That video just coming in. Any indication from officials how long it might take for the White House, assuming they like these recommendations from this bipartisan commission, how long it will take to start implementing them?

HENRY: We got the first idea of a timetable today. White House aides also saying that while they're not in any rush to deal with the recommendations from the Iraq Study Group, they're also waiting for the Bush administration's own review, being conducted and coordinated by the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

Mr. Hadley, aboard Air Force One, told reporters basically that the president will act within weeks, not months, on recommendations, both from the Iraq Study Group, but, also, you have to watch that, almost a rival report, coming from within the administration itself.

So weeks, not months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And they'll pick and choose which recommendations they like and which they don't necessarily like.

HENRY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: We'll watch that closely with you, Ed.

Thank you very much.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democrats are trying to hold the president's feet to the fire on Iraq, as they prepare to take control of both houses of Congress. Some flame throwers may be out next week when the Iraq Study Group releases its recommendations. But the sparks won't just be coming from Democrats.

Let's bring in our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, now lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been quick to say that they have as yet to see this report themselves. They've only read about it in the media. Nevertheless, some Democrats say from what they've heard so far, they think that it's a step in the right direction. But not all Democrats and Republicans agree.


KOPPEL (voice-over): Members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group may have reached consensus on their recommendations, but on Capitol Hill, the early word from lawmakers is decidedly mixed and not falling along party lines.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, they deserve a great deal of credit.

KOPPEL: Connecticut's Chris Dodd is a top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and says he likes what he's hearing. DODD: The idea that we should begin withdrawals or a redeployment of forces, as well as calling upon the United States government to start dealing with elements in the region such as Syria and Iran, so that we can talk about some regional context to come out of this situation with a success in Iraq and also get our troops home, it sounds to me like they're heading in the right direction.

KOPPEL: But Texas Republican John Cornyn says instead of looking to withdraw U.S. forces early next year, the U.S. should send in an additional 20,000 to 50,000 troops.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think it's going to take a temporary, not an open-ended commitment, but a temporary commitment to surge and show that we're serious about securing Baghdad and let the political institutions work out their differences.

KOPPEL: While another Democrat, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, says the group's decision not to recommend a time line to redeploy U.S. troops is troubling. In a statement, Feingold explained: "We must redeploy from Iraq so that we can refocus on what must be our top national security priority -- the threat posed by terrorist networks operating around the world."

Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supports partitioning Iraq and says he's concerned the Iraq Study Group may miss the most important point -- the need for a strategy to build a sustainable political settlement in Iraq, bringing the neighbors in and starting to get our troops out are necessary, but not sufficient.


KOPPEL: As one Republican Senate aide told CNN, the feeling up here on the Hill is that there may have been some unrealistic expectations as to just what this commission's report could do. This aide said all of us got carried away thinking about just what the commission could accomplish -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the commission established by Congress. They'll report to the president first Wednesday morning. Then they'll report to members of Congress then go to the news media and report to the American public.

Andrea, thanks very much for that.

Just ahead, I'll speak with the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, about the Iraq Study Group, the president's policy, what Democrats can do, what they might do to try to bring the troops home.

That interview with John Kerry coming up.

On the ground in Iraq, the crisis is as deadly and destabilizing as ever. A parliamentary revolt is turning the Iraqi government into more of a political war zone. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is in Baghdad -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was out of the country barely two days. But in that time, his problems here have really grown significantly.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Arriving back in Baghdad from his meeting with President Bush, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is walking into trouble. His government is faltering, his parliament divided. The situation is worse than when he left two days ago.

His meeting with President Bush in neighboring Jordan was supposed to bolster his power. It appears to have had the reverse effect.

In Maliki's absence, a parliamentary revolt led by firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who demands a date for U.S. troop withdrawal, is gathering momentum. Sunnis and others are joining what appears to be the first big Sunni-Shia political alliance, a striking development in Iraq's sectarian politics.

SALEH AL MUTLAG: We've been contacting different parties inside the parliament in order to make a bloc to stand against many things, not only the withdrawal.

ROBERTSON: Saleh Al Mutlag has often been the voice of dissent in the parliament. He says the deal has been in the works for months and includes parties inside and outside the government.

AL MUTLAG: This group, we believe, is going to be the alternative for what is going on now.

ROBERTSON: Iraqis did watch Maliki's meeting with Bush. Expectations it could halt what many here fear is a civil war were low. It didn't stop people hoping. Sunnis and Shias were united in their disappointment.

"We don't see any solution from the Bush-Maliki meeting," Sunni Ali says. "Iraqis will reap nothing from such meetings."

"These are words without deeds," says Shiite Mohammed. "We want deeds. Bush and America have done nothing for us."

Maliki's first stop when he got back -- a news conference. His first topic -- America is changing tactics but still supports us. When questioned about the revolt, he called for Sadr to back down.

NOURI AL MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): They should be committed. We hope they reconsider.


ROBERTSON: In the six months he's been prime minister, Nuri al- Maliki has never looked so embattled. His leadership has been questioned in a White House memo, despite President Bush's assurances, and his ability to run-the country now seems to be undercut, because he seems to be losing his grip over the people he needs to help him do it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

No clear successor to Nuri al-Maliki if, in fact, his government should collapse. The political landscape in Baghdad right now very, very tenuous.

Let's turn to CNN's Carol Costello.

She's got a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.


Hello, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

New developments now to tell you on the F-18 fighter jet crash. It happened at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California during a routine training mission. We're getting that information from a San Diego Fire Rescue Department spokesman. The pilot is OK, managing to eject safely from the aircraft. Search crews are at the scene. They have reached that pilot. Of course, we'll bring you more on this story when we know it.

More grim discoveries in the Iraqi capital today, even as President Bush met in Jordan with Iraq's prime minister about how to end the surging sectarian violence. In what's becoming a daily occurrence, police found 25 bodies across Baghdad, the victims shot to death.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants Israeli and Palestinian leaders to push ahead on a comprehensive peace plan. She met with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in Jerusalem today. She also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Rice praised their efforts to reach a cease-fire in Gaza. Abbas told Rice that talks with Hamas on forming a new unity government are at a dead end.

On to that Russian spy mystery. British officials are saying parliamentary test results show low levels of a radioactive substance on two British Airways jets. Investigators are also examining a third British Airways aircraft and a Russian airliner. Officials stress the risk to the public is extremely low, but there have been a lot of phone calls. The airplanes are being looked at in the investigation into the deadly radiation poisoning of that former Russian spy. An autopsy, by the way, is set for tomorrow.

That's a look at the headlines -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on that story coming up in the next hour here. Carol, thank you very much.

Let's check in with Jack.

He's got "The Cafferty File" -- hi, Jack.


The former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, thinks that the war on terror will force the United States to re-examine the first amendment to the constitution. He made those remarks at an awards banquet in New Hampshire. The story was reported by the "Manchester Union Leader."

The dinner, by the way, was one to honor people and organizations that stand up for freedom of speech. Gingrich thinks the United States may need a different set of rules to prevent terrorists from using the Internet and free speech to reel in new recruits and he said we need those new rules soon, because the United States could "lose a city" within the next decade.

So here's the question -- do you think the United States can win the war on terror without re-examining the first amendment to our constitution?

E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Some critics already suggesting that the first amendment already has been re-examined, Jack.

CAFFERTY: And shredded, in some regards. I mean there have been some liberties taken with those freedoms that -- that are highly suspect or questionable, to say the least.

BLITZER: We'll hear our viewers, what they have to say, coming up.

Jack, thank you.

And coming up next, one Democrat is trying to get a jump on his White House competition. We're going to tell you who's making it official today and whether the early start is likely to matter in the end.

Also, is Al Gore staying above the presidential fray or is he really ready to jump in?

The former vice president's new P.R. campaign gets the once over in our Strategy Session.

All that coming up.

And up next, Senator John Kerry's complaints about Iraq -- how far are he and members of his party willing to go to force the issue and plan for an exit? John Kerry, coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Democrats are getting ready to take charge of the House and the Senate, believing they have a mandate from the voters to launch the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq.

Senator John Kerry and other leading critics of the president's policy are keeping close watch on the latest diplomatic maneuvering and they're gearing up for next week's release of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

Senator Kerry, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Glad to be with you.

Thank you.

BLITZER: Listen to what the president said today in Amman following his meeting with the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki.

Listen to this bottom line assessment on his part.


BUSH: I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done.


BLITZER: He says we're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there.

Does that make sense?

KERRY: I think that the Baker report is going to move in a very different direction and I think it's going to change the debate in this country. We all want to get the job done. Let's understand that.

There's a difference of opinion about how you get the job done. Our own intelligence agencies are telling us that our presence of American troops in Iraq is creating more terrorism, creating more terrorists, delaying the willingness of the Iraqis to stand up for themselves.

So I think we're going to have a very big debate in America. We ought to have a debate about how you best achieve our goals, the Iraqis' goals, the goals of the Middle East, the needs of all nations for security in the region.

And I believe you have to be tougher, set a date, be clear about the transition of authority, demand more from the Iraqis, leverage a change in their behavior and get our troops out of harm's way. BLITZER: If the president doesn't do what you're recommending, you're going to be in the majority now, the Democrats in the Senate and in the House, what specifically can you do to force him to take these steps if he, in fact, refuses?

KERRY: Well, you know what I'd prefer to do?

I'd really prefer to see all of us come together and work with the president in a cooperative way if we can, to sort of have a good discussion about this. Let's not get locked into positions that are just so intractable that we can't advance American interests.

BLITZER: But if he doesn't do that, Senator...

KERRY: The foreign policy...

BLITZER: ... are there specific...

KERRY: Well, if he doesn't do that, if he...

BLITZER: ... are there specific steps the Senate can do to force his hand?

KERRY: There are all kinds of things that the Senate can do that can change the dynamics here very significantly, not the least of which, obviously, are serious accountability hearings. Secondly, we have the ability in the Congress to pass one resolution or another, or to put into law certain kinds of policies. I mean, you remember back in the days of the Contras in Central America, the Congress passed what was called the Boland Amendment and actually forbade certain activities from taking place.

So Congress has a certain power here. I think before we get into that, it would be so much better if we could sit down with the president and with Condoleezza Rice and really talk through how we come together, both parties, take the politics out at the water's edge and get a policy that works for America.

Now, if you wanted to be really optimistic and see the glass half full instead of half empty, you could take the president's comments and say we're not going to have the troops out until we have the job done and say OK, that can still fit with what the Baker Commission might offer, which is we're going to draw down some troops, we're still going to get the job done, we're going to transfer authority to the Iraqis, we're going to provide enough stability because we get an international diplomatic effort that resolves the real differences and, indeed, the troops come out as the job is being done.

BLITZER: Do you think this...

KERRY: But the only best...

BLITZER: Senator, excuse me for interrupting, but do you think this president is already, though, a lame duck?

I ask the question in the aftermath of his visit to Jordan and what many observers are now suggesting was a snub by the prime minister of Iraq. He goes all the way to Amman, Jordan and he's supposed to have dinner with the king, King Abdullah and the prime minister. And the prime minister doesn't show up.

Is he a lame duck?

KERRY: I don't think any sitting president of the United States is a lame duck when it comes to foreign policy. There's too much power in the presidency and the interests of our country are too great.

If the president reaches out to us in the Democratic Party and really tries to work together, he has a chance to have a legacy here that could be important for our nation, and, obviously, for him personally.

I've offered to be helpful to Condoleezza Rice. I've called her. I hope we can all work together. But we've got to be tougher in our approach.

I believe personally, and I've said this publicly, that you have to set a date for the expectation of when the Iraqis will take over their responsibility. And if you don't get tough and have those kinds of benchmarks, then they have an excuse to avoid it altogether...

BLITZER: All right...

KERRY: Six months ago -- six months ago, Wolf, General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad said they have about six months to make these Democratic Senator. They haven't made the decisions.

So what is going to make them do it?

I believe the thing that makes them do it is a clear schedule. It's what's made them -- you know, take a certain step of behavior every single way. And we have to do it now.

BLITZER: What about talking to Iran?

The president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, is a guy, he denies that the Holocaust took place. He says Israel should not exist. He's virulently anti-American.

Should the U.S. be talking to a leader like this?

KERRY: I think that it's good policy to always have some kind of discussion absent being at war or something egregious that's happened very specifically, to be -- having some kind of dialogue. You know, Jim Baker said sometimes you have to talk to people you're not friendly with.

Ronald Reagan sat down with the entity that he called "The Evil Empire" and he came to an agreement with Gorbachev. Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger to China and opened up a dialogue.

We have to do that as a matter of trying to feel out what's possible, as a matter of putting to test, perhaps, some opportunity diplomatically that could change dynamics.

The American people and the people of the world want adult leadership. They want statesmanship. They want statecraft. They don't want this sort of arbitrary, isolationist, shut the door, ideological rigidity. And I think it is important to talk to Syria. I think it's important to talk to Iran.

BLITZER: All right...

KERRY: I don't trust, necessarily, what they say to you, but there are ways to put to test what they say to you, and that's what good diplomacy is about.

BLITZER: Still ahead, more questions for Senator John Kerry.

Will he run-for the White House once again despite some red flags about his prospects?

And Al Gore's presidential ambitions under scrutiny in our Strategy Session. He's been keeping a high profile. L

Could a campaign come back be next?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Let's get back to my interview with Senator John Kerry.

While he's eager to talk about Iraq, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee is playing his 2008 cards closer to his vest.

I want to go through a little politics while I have.

KERRY: Sure.

BLITZER: And I'll refer to our recent CNN poll that came out not too long ago among registered Democrats. Their choice for a presidential nominee in 2008. Hillary Clinton is at 33. Then Barack Obama is at 15. John Edwards, Al Gore at 14. You're down at 7 percent.

But look at this. In the same poll, we asked these registered Democrats their view about you. Only 7 percent they currently -- say they currently would support you as the presidential nominee. Thirty- eight percent would consider supporting you, but 51 percent don't want you as the nominee.

What do you make of these numbers?

KERRY: They're -- it's a reaction to having lost in '04 and to a lot of, you know, things that have gone on since. I don't put a lot of stock in polls at this point. I really think that we have to wait and see where we are next year and I think what the American people want us to do is do their business right now, not get caught up in this.

I don't put a lot of stock in polls, as you know. I was 30 points behind for months upon months and I won. And I think I, you know, I've earned the right to say that anything right now is really not particularly meaningful.

BLITZER: Newt Gingrich wrote, or said in the "Boston Globe," where you are, on Tuesday, referring to the botched joke that you made near the end of the last election campaign: "John Kerry had a bad fall. He said a dumb thing. If he would go away for six months, then find two or three things that really matter to the American people, he could be among the frontrunners."

What do you think of that advice from Newt Gingrich?

KERRY: Well, what I'm doing right now is working on the important issues that we face. I mean, the most important thing is Iraq, getting our troops home and doing what's necessary to have stability in the region and represent, you know, sort of restore America's moral authority in the world.

I think that's a big deal. I've been working on that every moment I've been in the Congress for three years. I've been advocating a different policy in Iraq and I intend to continue to focus very, very clearly on that.

Teresa and I are writing a book right now on the environment. It's a book we look forward to bringing out in a few months. I'm excited about it. We deal, obviously, with the issue of global climate change, but with a lot of other issues. And we need to change the attitude of the United States Congress.

So my sense is that I'm moving forward on issues that are important and I'm going to continue to focus on those issues.

BLITZER: When are you going to announce whether or not you're going to run for president again?

KERRY: I just -- you know, sometime in the course of the early part -- I can't tell you exactly when. I think the fact that we've won the Congress, Wolf, really changes the schedule a little bit for everybody.

In my judgment, the people overwhelmingly asked us to get about the people's business in a different way quickly, and I think we have an obligation in January to begin to do that with certain intensity that is actually measurable by the American people. And that's the first objective.

So I think everybody probably ought to be holding their breath for a moment and really watching what we do in Congress to try to make good on the promises of a very important election year. BLITZER: You know you've got a lot of work ahead of out that. Quinnipiac University poll, among likeability and popularity, you came out at the bottom.

KERRY: Well, yes, I know.

BLITZER: Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama came up at the top. So you have your hands full if you want to throw yourself in the presidential ring once again.

KERRY: Well, once again, Wolf, you know, you've been around a long time. That's a poll taken one week after a week of pretty intensive negative publicity about something that was a genuine mistake, that was a slip-up of one word. I really think people have made much too much out of.

But it was important for me not to become an issue in an election that I cared about. So I stepped out of the way and let people hack away and, obviously, you're going to pay a price. I understand that.

At the same time, we won. We won the Senate; we won the House. I campaigned for over 80 candidates; 60 of the 80 that I campaigned for won. I raised over $14 million and gave unbelievable amounts of money away to help people win. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of my contribution to the party's victory.

And we're going to move on from there, and that's it. I think people need to get serious about the real issues that face the country. That's what I was elected to do, and that's what I'm doing.

BLITZER: Senator Kerry, thanks very much for coming in.

KERRY: Thank you.

BLITZER: And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our political ticker. Go to

Let's go to Carol Costello. She's watching another important story right now -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Yes, Wolf. We've got a new development to talk to you about. The prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, telling ABC News that Iraqi security forces and police would be able to be under his total command in six months, by June 2007.

Now, the U.S. has been always skeptical of that, because, of course, you know, we've been reporting the horrible violence there. But what's important or what seems to be important about his latest statement to ABC News is that he was very explicit about that six months timetable, which may mean that he's sending a message to the U.S. forces that it's OK to begin a slow withdrawal. As you know, that's probably going to be recommended by the Iraqi Study Group.

We'll have more for you later, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, let's see if he can live up to that. If he says he can get his troops ready by June of 2007, that would be music to the ears of a lot of Americans. But we'll see if he can really live up to that.

Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

And as Carol said, we'll stay on top of this story.

Coming up in our 5 p.m. Eastern hour, by the way, half an hour or so from now, a CNN exclusive. The former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, now wading into the controversy over whether the unrest in Iraq is actually a civil war. He's going to tell us what he thinks about a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out. That CNN interview with Bill Clinton, coming up.

First, will Mr. Clinton's former vice president make another run for the White House? And what are the chances of Al Gore's winning an election in 2008? We'll take a hard look in today's "Strategy Session". That's coming up next. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, now maybe Al Gore again? Is the former vice president planning another run for the White House in 2008?

Joining us now to discuss this and other issues in our "Strategy Session", our CNN political analysts, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts.

He had some fun last night with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show". Let's run a little clip of that.


JAY LENO, HOST, NBC'S "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Now, you've stepped out of politics. Do you miss it at all?

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, there's some things I miss about it. Being able to have more of a direct influence on policy.

LENO: Right.

GORE: You see what you think are mistakes being made, you think, gosh, I wish I could help avoid that. But there are a lots of things about it that I really don't miss at all.


BLITZER: You know, we're not getting a real clue from him what he has in mind, but what do you make of this? The body language, the hints out there that, you know, he might be actually interested in throwing his hat into the ring?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Look, he hasn't ruled it out but he hasn't given any signs that he's preparing to run. Gore, perhaps, has more people at his disposal to pick up the phone and call and look, say, I'm ready to go to Iowa, ready to go to New Hampshire, South Carolina. He hasn't done that. So all indication right now is that he's holding his fire (ph). And let's see what happens next year.

BLITZER: You managed his campaign back in 2000 so you get that phone call, you might have to run out, leave THE SITUATION ROOM right away.

BRAZILE: I keep my bags packed.

BLITZER: What do you think about Al Gore's prospects? What do you think he's going to do? Obviously, none of us knows.

J.C. WATTS, FORMER CONGRESSMAN: That's true, we don't, but I think his prospects, I think his chances would be as good as anyone else's. Presidential politics means infrastructure: can you raise the money; can you put together the resources to do it; can you put the right team together? I think he could do that.

BLITZER: Because whatever he says I'm not ruling it out or I'm leaving it open, I haven't decided. Without that Sherman-esque kind of declaration, everybody is going to assume maybe he's thinking about it.

WATTS: Well, when they say I'm not ruling it out, you know, I haven't made a decision, that means I'm taking a really, really serious look at it.

So, Wolf, it's an open run. It's an open seat. You don't have an incumbent that's running, a vice president that wants to be president. Anybody that thinks they can be president on the Republican or the Democrat side, they are going to take a very serious look at it, including Al Gore.

BLITZER: I suspect a lot of his decision will be, obviously, if he could get the nomination, and a lot will happen about what happens on the ground in Iraq right now. As you know, even before the Congress approved the resolution authorizing the war, he was dead set against it.

BRAZILE: And he's had a consistent position from day one against this war, against our occupation in Iraq, the mismanagement of the war.

Al Gore has the right set of what I call post-9/11 skills. Strong on national security. Someone who can talk about domestic issues, as well. But you know, his No. 1 priority right now is focusing the world on the dangers of global warming. He's spent a great deal of time and resources.

By the way, his DVD is out. I should give a plug for "An Inconvenient Truth".

BLITZER: There's an extra 30 minutes of an additional little aspect that wasn't in the actual movie.

BRAZILE: It's more footage than you can imagine of Al Gore explaining the dangers. And I think, look, he's built an incredible, you know, group of activists across the country. They're now lobbying state legislative chambers, you know, to get resolutions passed. So if Gore decides to run I want people to understand he can get in there, and he can win.

BLITZER: You're anxious to get back into this conversation.

WATTS: Well, I -- you know, this is striking to me. Al Gore versus Senator Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, who was a vice presidential nominee last time, and John Kerry you just talked to him.

BLITZER: Tom Vilsack.

WATTS: Tom Vilsack, governor of Iowa.

BRAZILE: Bill Richardson and...

WATTS: Bill Richardson, yes.

BRAZILE: And Wesley Clark and the rest of them.

WATTS: Yes, Bill. On the Republican side, you know, Senator McCain...

BLITZER: A lot of people out there.

WATTS: Yes, I told Donna earlier. I said, you know, the place to be in '08 is to own the concessions to all of this excitement that's going to be out there, all of the different discussions.

But I do think Al Gore has a legitimate chance to be a real nominee if he chooses to do it.

BLITZER: If Richard Nixon, historically speaking, could come back from a defeat to be elected president of the United States, Al Gore presumably could look at that historic record and say to himself, you know, may have lost by a few hundred votes in Florida the last time around, but he did get more popular votes than George W. Bush did in 2000.

BLITZER: Well, he's the only person that ever ran for the White House and came in first and didn't get the job. So if he decides to run, there's no question that he can put together the team. He can raise the millions of dollars.

And you know, again, he's been incredible on a campaign trail. Democrats call on him to raise money, to go out there and rally the troops.

BLITZER: So given the history, given the need to raise money to get out there, when would he have to make a decision and create these committees to run for president?

BRAZILE: Right after he accepts best picture for a documentary.

BLITZER: After the Academy Awards?

BRAZILE: Absolutely. After he comes down that red carpet...

BLITZER: That's in March, right?

BRAZILE: ... with Tipper. He can sit around with some advisors and perhaps announce at that point.

WATTS: And Wolf, that's the $64,000 question: how long can someone wait before they decide to run? It's almost too late at this point, when you consider the activity on the Republican side, activity on the Democrat side.

I think Barack Obama is very smart by saying, "Hey, I'm not going to wait until April or May to get out there and start making some noises." He's doing the right things now.

So you almost -- you're almost too late if you're just now deciding to throw your hat in.

BLITZER: No love loss between Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, right?

BRAZILE: Look, they are good friends. They worked together for eight years.

WATTS: Donna!

BRAZILE: They worked together for eight -- I'm keeping a straight face. But, look, she is someone that we should also...

BLITZER: There ought to be a good debate, the two of them.

BRAZILE: No question. I mean, they are both smart. They're intelligent. And you know what? They have grass root appeal. And she will be also a very strong candidate.

BLITZER: We're going to watch this with both of you very, very closely.

BRAZILE: I'm excited.

WATTS: I want to sell the popcorn and Coke!

BRAZILE: I want the buttons and the T-shirts. We got to make some money, J.C.

BLITZER: Donna Brazil, J.C. Watts. They are part of the best political team on television.

And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our political ticker at

Coming up, a mea culpa from the U.S. attorney general. Why Alberto Gonzales now says the Justice Department made a $2 million mistake. We're going to talk to him in our 5 p.m. Eastern hour.

But up next, the race for the White House heating up. We'll find out who else is throwing his hat into the ring today for 2008. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Tom Vilsack is the governor of the state that holds the first presidential caucus, and today he became the first Democrat to formally announce he's running for the White House. If you don't know a lot about Tom Vilsack, you're not necessarily alone.

Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, knows a lot about this governor. She's joining us now live from Mount Pleasant in Iowa -- Candy.


The early bird may not get the worm in politics, but he sure has a lot better chance, and that's what Tom Vilsack is depending on.


CROWLEY (voice-over): He does not have the name recognition of Hillary Clinton, the pizzazz of Barack Obama, or the silver tongue of John Edwards. He has none of that.

(on camera) Who is Tom Vilsack?

GOV. TOM VILSACK (D-IA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I tell you, I'm an underdog and I've -- you know, I've always had to work my way up.

CROWLEY (voice-over): An orphan, Tom Vilsack was adopted by what he calls a loving but troubled family: an alcoholic, sometimes abusive mother, a father who struggled in business. It's what they call in the political trade, a powerful narrative. Vilsack is touchable.

VILSACK: I knew then and I know today what it's like to be alone and to feel as if you don't belong.

CROWLEY: The governor of Iowa kicked off his campaign for president of the United States in the kind of place you imagined he imagined: Mount Pleasant, Iowa. The small downtown where Vilsack practiced law and began to raise a family on potlucks and picket fences.

VILSACK: In front of the family and friends that I love so much, in a community that I'm so proud to call home, I announce my candidacy to be the next president of the United States.

CROWLEY: He is a centrist from the heartland, a governor who is big into alternative energy and boasts of an eight-year tenure that improved schools and healthcare.

Voters like governors to be presidents. Ask Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George Bush.

But it will be a tough go. The catch-22 of politics: Vilsack needs name recognition to raise money and money to boost name recognition, and he is competing against headliners.

The odds are against him, but there is hope in history. At this point in the 2004 cycle, nobody had heard of Howard Dean. And Jimmy Carter was Jimmy Who until he won the Iowa caucuses.

VILSACK: We are going to win this thing.

CROWLEY: Tom Vilsack is ready to roll.


CROWLEY: Count on Vilsack to make energy security his signature issue. The idea here is even if he doesn't win, he could help shape the debate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is it a foregone conclusion, Candy, that he's going to win the Iowa caucuses? Because I assume other Democrats are going to challenge the -- the hometown favorite, if you will.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. And Iowa politicos are not interested in having any kind of closed caucus and having people say, "Well, look, let's just give it to Vilsack and run on to New Hampshire."

You know there was a poll here, not that long ago, that showed Vilsack coming in fourth. I asked him about that. And he said, "Look, people here saw me at that time as the governor. I'm still their governor. When I get out and begin to talk to them about presidential issues," he doesn't have much doubt he'll win Iowa. But he's going to have to fight for it.

BLITZER: Candy is going to be spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire and all sorts of nice places like that. Candy, thanks very much.

And here is a look at where Governor Vilsack stands on some of the key issues. He supports abortion rights for women; expressed concern over President Bush's immigration proposals. He deployed Iowa National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border. And he signed a law establishing English as Iowa's official language.

He opposed setting a specific timetable for a troop withdrawal in Iraq. He says he would consult with military advisors on removing troops.

Vilsack supports Iowa's law banning same-sex marriage, and he says a federal or state constitutional ban is unnecessary. Does support civil unions.

Vilsack opposes the privatization of Social Security, and he signed a law phasing out income taxes on Social Security benefits.

On taxes, the Iowa Democrat signed a law cutting or eliminating certain taxes for Iowa seniors, and he voted income tax cuts in a 2004 state economic bill.

Still ahead, will immigrants taking the test to become U.S. citizens have to answer questions many of us couldn't? We'll check out the new test and the reaction online.

And former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, is linking the war on terror to freedom of speech. Jack Cafferty wants you to exercise your freedom of speech. He's standing by with your e-mail. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Let's check in with Jack for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, ANCHOR: Wolf, former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, recently said the war on terror may force the United States to re-examine freedom of speech. The question we asked is, "Can the U.S. win the war on terror without reexamining the First Amendment to our Constitution?"

Scott in Kirkland, Washington: "Yes, it can. But it will take some thought and hard work, something that is absent in Washington these days. If we don't keep our rights and values, what is there to fight terror for?"

Steve in Alabama: "First, habeas corpus went kaput. Now it's the First Amendment. Apparently, those who are sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution have decided to upend and define it instead. Since terrorist is basically just a glorified term for murderer or thug, it's hard to say what winning the war on terror would actually mean. What's happening to our country in the process, though, sure looks a lot like losing."

Craig in Florida: "For this administration, why not just burn what's left of our Constitution and Bill of Rights and be done with it? Bush has already got a good start on violating the 10 Commandments, as well. What's it going to take to bring these arrogant clowns to justice?"

David in Houlton, Maine: "If this administration had any respect for the First Amendment, we probably would not be in this mess to begin with. Our Constitution is our greatest strength. And whenever we've tampered with it we've gotten a black eye. This is just another attempt at 'be afraid, be very afraid', so Republican nuts can eliminate what's left of our tattered rights."

Dona in California: "Newt Gingrich has Orwell's 'newspeak' down pat. Newt Gingrich needs to go play with his dinosaur bones and leave reality-based discussions about free speech to the adults. We don't elect amphibians, Newt."

And G.H. writes, "If Newt had his way, you couldn't even ask this question" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that. We'll be back with you in a few moments.

Still to come right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. Does he think the leak of a classified memo to "The New York Times" on Iraq crosses a legal line? My interview with the attorney general, that's coming up.

And what do you need to know to become a United States citizen? Perhaps more than you think. We're going online to study the new exam. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Can you name one famous battle from the Revolutionary War? You might have -- have to if you're actually applying to become a United States citizen.

The Department of Homeland Security is revamping its new citizenship exam and has just posted the possible questions online.

Let's get some more from our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Bunker Hill is one of the seven acceptable answers now online from homeland security.

They say this isn't about making the new test easier or harder but making the new test more meaningful. For example, one of the old questions is "What are the three branches of government?" Now, they're asking why we have three branches of government.

One immigrant advocacy group says they are happy that the government is putting these questions online. And they're testing a pilot program before they roll out the questions in full. But they do say some of the questions they find are too hard and some they're calling just plain, quote, "off the wall."

For example, they want to know what you need to know the current minimum wage, which is currently at $5.15 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jacki, thank you.