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What will Mr. Bush Say Tonight?; Early Reaction to Speech Coming in From Capitol Hill; President Bush Attempts to Get War Strategy Right

Aired January 10, 2007 - 19:00   ET


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

BLITZER: Happening right now, the commander in chief on the brink of building up a war most Americans would rather see end. We have new details of what Mr. Bush will say tonight about the Iraq mission ahead and the mistakes made.

ZAHN: The president's new battle plan puts him in direct conflict with public opinion and the new political climate here in Washington. Early reaction already is coming in from Capitol Hill all the way to the combat zone in Iraq.

BLITZER: And, tonight, the president's legacy clearly on the line, along with American and Iraqi lives. Is tonight's address his last chance to get his war strategy right?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

ZAHN: And I'm Paula Zahn.


We want to welcome our viewers, also want to welcome Paula Zahn; she's joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM for our special coverage of the president's address to the nation.

ZAHN: Nice to be here with you. And tonight the president will try to set the Iraq war on a new course, after almost four years of combat and more than 3,000 military lives lost.

BLITZER: Our correspondents, analysts and guests are all standing by across the nation and around the world on this critical night for the president and for a nation at war.

Let's begin at the center of the action tonight over at the White House.

ZAHN: Time to check in with our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux who has the very latest information on what we can expect later tonight. Suzanne? SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Paula, as you realized, really President Bush's credibility is on the line here. It was just two months ago you may recall he said we were winning the war in Iraq, that is clearly not the case and we have been in this position before. We have seen P.R. campaigns, speeches, announcements about new policies -- the big question here of course tonight whether or not the president lays out a viable strategy or it it's just another pep rally.

Now senior administration officials tell us that he will acknowledge failure, that there were not enough U.S. or Iraqi troops to complete the mission or carry out the mission and that he will announce that there will be some 21,000 U.S. troops additional to send to Baghdad. Of course, 4,000 Marines to head to the Anbar Province, a stronghold of al Qaeda, and that there will also be Iraqi forces joining them.

One of the excerpts from the speech, he addresses the troop increase controversy saying to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government. Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay in Iraq even longer and confront an enemy that is even more lethal. If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home. We are going to hear the president talk about a goal. That is that Iraqi troops are able to secure their country to take operational control by some time November of this year. Paula, Wolf?

ZAHN: Thanks so much, Suzanne, for the update.

Now the president's address is setting up a confrontation with Democrats in Congress tomorrow. Just hours after the speech, Democrats open the first hearings into the war and they'll be voting in the next few days on resolutions against the troop increase. Let's go straight to congressional correspondent Dana Bash with more on that. Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, the president has been calling down to the White House lawmakers from both parties all week trying to shore up support for his plan. It doesn't seem to have been doing much good. Democratic leaders, for example, came out of the White House today saying that they were not actually consulted as promised. They were simply informed about his speech and even one time staunch Republican Bush supporters here on Capitol Hill came out even before Mr. Bush spoke to say they opposed his plan.


BASH (voice-over): Top Democrats listen to the president describe his new Iraq strategy, then stood in the White House driveway and said he is wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am at a loss as to what is going to happen with these additional troops.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the third time we're going down this path. Two times it has not worked.

BASH: Congressional Democrats are united against the president's new Iraq plan, but they're divided on what to do about it, including whether to take the politically risky step of trying to choke off funding for any new troops. In the short term, Democrats have settled on holding House and Senate vote gauging support for the president's policy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will give his proposal a fair hearing and in our hearings we will establish the ground truth of what is happening in Iraq.

BASH: Democrats say they're confident those votes will send a message to the president that Congress and the American people reject his plan and want to bring troops home. To do that, they'll need Republican defections. The GOP leadership is standing by Mr. Bush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the president as the commander in chief puts more troops in the field, the Congress will, in fact, support them.

BASH: But there is fresh proof the president is increasingly isolated. Just a few hours before the president's address to the nation, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative presidential hopeful, released a statement just after leaving Baghdad saying, "I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer." Another Republican announced his opposition to the president on the Senate floor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Iraq is to fulfill its role as a sovereign and democratic state, it must start acting like one. It is for this reason that I oppose the proposal for a troop surge.


BASH: And, yet, another Republican senator, George Voinovich of Ohio also said today that he is quote, "skeptical about what he called a surge in troops in Iraq." There are examples of the change in political atmosphere, Paula, here, everywhere. And we're going to see that front and center first thing tomorrow when the defense secretary and the secretary of state come here to Capitol Hill to talk about the president's plan -- Paula.

ZAHN: The whole administration facing a big challenge here. Dana, look forward to seeing you throughout the night as we count down to the president's speech.

BLITZER: She'll be back with us.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials say deployment orders are ready for the signature of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but troops won't get that go ahead to start moving until after the president's speech. The first troops are expected to be from the 82nd Airborne Division already next door in Kuwait.

Let's get some more now on what's going on. We have two correspondents standing by; Michael Holmes is in Baghdad, as is Arwa Damon. Arwa is currently embedded with U.S. and Iraqi forces who are battling Sunni insurgents on Baghdad's Haifa Street. Arwa, what is the latest?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in terms of that gun battle, and it is highly indicative of just how important the relationship between U.S. and Iraqi forces are it also highlights that 10-hour gun battle, the many challenges that face the forces that are operating here in the days and perhaps all of the times ahead. In terms of that gun battle, for now what we are hearing is that the area is fairly calm.

There have only been a few clashes. The Iraqi army has been able to successfully handle those. Now speaking with U.S. military commanders about that operation, one of its main missions was also to bolster the confidence of the Iraqi army operating in that area. This for the U.S. forces is not only a gun battle; it is also a training and mentoring mission. One of the many things that is so crucial to the process of securing the capital and eventually handing over to the Iraqi security forces.

In fact, speaking with military commanders here on the ground, they say that any sort of potential surge should be focused on partnership with the Iraqi security forces so that the U.S. military can continue to work one on one with them, allow them to move forward. Also, when battling many of the insurgent elements and the militias operating in this area, it is the U.S. fire power and air power, as well as command and control abilities that are very important for the Iraqis to be able to work alongside the Americans, especially when it comes to military tactics. These are incredibly valuable lessons moving forward, Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa thanks very much. Paula, Arwa as you know, was right in the thick of the battle yesterday on that battle for Haifa Street in Baghdad. She's doing an incredible job for us.

ZAHN: And that extraordinary video gave us a sense of just how dangerous that was.

Time for us to check in with Michael Holmes our correspondent in Baghdad now to get a sense of how quickly these additional troops could be added in. Michael, what have you learned about the pace of these new deployments?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've been told that some of those units are going to be deployed. It's going to take a few weeks to get them in and then a few weeks probably to get them going. As for what Iraqis think about this whole thing and President Bush's speech and the news, we've been asking them and it depends, of course, very much on who you ask.

Some say that if an increase in troops is going to cut the violence, sure, bring them in. Others say, no, it's bad news. They believe the very presence of Americans causes or exacerbates at least the violence. A poll back in November just showed that 50 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. out immediately. And there's another group, too, Paula, a large one.

That group simply doesn't care about the president's speech. They say that literally they're too preoccupied with getting through the day alive. And that's not difficult to understand when I tell you that just today another 60 bodies tortured and shot to death were found in the streets of the capital and that makes 285 such bodies found in the capital this month. And we're only 10 days in -- Paula.

ZAHN: Michael Holmes. It strikes me that the audience that the president really cares about tonight in Iraq, of course, is the audience of Mr. al-Maliki's government...


ZAHN: ... and how seriously they are taking some of the pressure he's expected to put on the government tonight.

BLITZER: He's trying to squeeze them as much as he can and he's getting some support in the effort by all the critics in Congress who are indirectly at least sending a message to the prime minister of Iraq, you know what...

ZAHN: Might be one of the rare times he's thankful for this Democratic criticism, right?

BLITZER: Right. You know you've got to come through otherwise it's over for you as well.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You remember the Iraq Study Group. That's the 10-member bipartisan panel that spent eight months talking to a slew of experts and coming up with suggestions for how to fix the mess in Iraq. Last month the group presented its report to the president saying the situation in Iraq was quote, "grave and deteriorating." They listed 79 recommendations for a change in Iraq strategy, including the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by 2008.

They also suggested direct talks with Iran and Syria. The collective wisdom of the Iraq Study Group it could be argued might exceed that of the neo conservative Kabul that has been calling the shots on this gigantic failure in Iraq so far. So what exactly was the point of that exercise? President Bush wants to send at least another 21,000 troops into combat in Iraq in the next few months. He's already rejected outright any direct talks with Iran or Syria. Instead in the speech tonight he's going to insist that those two countries voluntarily become constructive, not meddling influences in Iraq and in the region.

Yes, that will happen. Here's the question then. What was the purpose of having an Iraq Study Group? E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf, Paula.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much. Jack Cafferty will be back shortly. Coming up, Congress and the American public increasingly skeptical and opposed to the war in Iraq. Is this new troop increase the president's last chance to try to turn things around?

ZAHN: We'll be talking about that with our reporters, our analysts and guests, including the president's former chief of staff, Andy Card. He is standing by to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BLITZER: And we're going to show you how families personally impacted by the war are still struggling, struggling very hard with the debate over more troops.

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


BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. We're standing by for the president's major address to the nation, indeed, to the world tonight on his new strategy for Iraq. Can a troop increase stem the violence and the chaos in Iraq and is the president's speech tonight his last chance to try to turn around the war?

ZAHN: And just as importantly, can he convince a skeptical public increasingly opposed to the U.S. mission in Iraq? Joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about that and more former White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card. Welcome.


ZAHN: Thanks for joining us tonight. So, the president's plan will only work if the prime minister of Iraq delivers. From what we understand, a number of the objectives that the president will outline tonight are things that they have talked abut before and that the prime minister has failed to deliver on. Why do you have faith that it will be any different this time around?

CARD: I think the president sent a very clear message to the leadership in Iraq that they have got to get their act together. And while I don't think that there will be a timetable, I think there is no doubt that the president has an expectation that they will start to perform. We're going to do everything we can to help them perform.

At the same time, the president is going to have an increased effort in diplomacy and he's going to send people out across the world to meet with our allies and those who should want to have a secure situation in Iraq to help them find the way to be a greater partner and a better partner in the process of getting there. But this is very important. Victory is the only solution to this problem. If we were to abandon the responsibilities in Iraq I think we would be creating bigger problems for the future for the United States in that region.

ZAHN: But what is it that is in that formula that's either going to give the prime minister a greater political will or the capacity to stem some of the sectarian violence?

CARD: I think we're going to give the prime minister a stronger backbone. I think that we're demonstrating that we're going to be there to help secure those tough neighborhoods in Baghdad that are desperately in need of security. And you know, the president is going to talk about some of the problems that were not addressed over the course of the last three years and he's going to acknowledge some of the mistakes that were made.

But he's saying this is the right thing to do. The president asked people with fresh eyes to take a look at the problem and they've offered their advice and counsel. I think the American people and members of Congress should listen with fresh ears as the president gives his speech tonight, and not walk in there with a bias against it and instead they should say let's listen objectively to what the president has to say. After all, he has the ultimate responsibility to protect us under that Constitution and it means that he has to make very tough decisions. This is a tough decision, but it's right in terms of the security for the country.

BLITZER: But, as you know, his credibility is very low right now. Not only with Democrats and certainly Democrats are opposed, but increasingly Republicans, Republicans who have been excellent foot soldiers for you like Norm Coleman, Gordon Smith, they are -- Sam Brownback, they're now saying this is not a good idea what the president is up to, they're not convinced he's doing the right thing.

CARD: The president knows more than any member of Congress, any member of the Senate and knows more than the collective members of Congress and the Senate and I don't mean that with arrogance. I mean that the president understands the diplomacy challenges, understands the intelligence better, understands the military challenges more detailed. He's listened to an awful lot of people. He's making the tough decisions.

Sometimes the president has a responsibility that requires him to be very lonely. This is one time where I think the president is making the right decision to keep his oath to preserve, protect and defend that Constitution. He's not looking to make this decision for a popularity contest or to win a campaign. He's doing what he thinks is right for the country and it's a tough decision and he has got great young men and women who are wearing uniforms that are helping him do it.

BLITZER: And you think in 20 minutes tonight when he's standing in the residential library over at the White House and looking into that camera he can convince a skeptical American people, as well as the Congress, that he knows what he's doing?

CARD: I think that he's going to demonstrate to the American people that he understands the problem. He understands how important it is that we have victory. That we cannot allow Iraq to become a safe haven for terrorists to attack our interests or us. We cannot have a failure in the responsibility to bring the Iraqi government up to meet an expectation that they will provide security for their own country and be an ally in the war on terror. ZAHN: The president not only has to deal with some of these foot soldiers that Wolf just talked about leaving the fold, He has talked about strictly adhering to the command structure and, as you know, there are many people at the Pentagon that don't think that this surge in troop strength is going to accomplish what this president says he wants to do.

CARD: There are also many people at the Pentagon that agree with the president, so I think there are different views. The president was asked by the American people and certainly by his critics to listen to new advice. He sought that advice and counsel. He went to many different sectors to listen to people.

He did bring fresh eyes to the problem. Let's give an opportunity for the president to deliver his message with fresh ears listening and understand the nature of the problem and how the president thinks it must be solved.

ZAHN: We will be listening with fresh ears right here.

BLITZER: Andy Card, thanks very much for coming in.

CARD: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to hear a different perspective right here in THE SITUATION ROOM soon. We'll speak to the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives, Steny Hoyer. He'll be joining us live.

Still to come, are U.S. military commanders in lock step with the commander in chief? We're gauging just how much Pentagon officials are on board with the president's plan for Iraq.

ZAHN: And just how much is the American public on board? Andrew Card saying it's not about a popularity contest here, but the families of many American troops will be listening very closely to what the president has to say and we're going to introduce you to one parent whose son died in Iraq. We're going to tell you how he feels about sending more American troops into harm's way.


ZAHN: It is a critical night for the White House tonight. You're watching CNN special coverage leading up to President Bush's long-awaited address to the nation about his changing strategy for Iraq. We're going to have a lot more live reports ahead...

BLITZER: And we're also going to check some other important news we're watching. Let's turn to CNN's Carol Costello. She's got that. Hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Yes, we're getting word from The Associated Press that part of an Indonesian airliner that vanished 10 days ago has been found. The AP reporting that a fisherman discovered a piece of the tail from the 737, which disappeared during a domestic inter-island flight. Now this is the first hard evidence that the plane did, in fact, crash. One hundred two people were onboard. No bodies have been recovered at this point.

House Democrats make good on a campaign promise passing a bill that would increase the minimum wage by more than $2 over the next two years. The vote was 315-116. The current minimum wage $5.15 hasn't been changed since 1997. The bill now goes to the Senate.

And many people are breathing easier at the Capitol building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi banning smoking in the speaker's lobby where lawmakers and reporters hang out, says Congress can no longer risk the health of colleagues, staff, pages and reporters who don't smoke. Lighting up is allowed only in certain designated areas in the House and in private offices.

Generations of TV fans knew her as Lily Munster, the actress Yvonne De Carlo, has died. She had a long Hollywood career that included films and other TV work, but she remains best known for her role in the black and white sitcom that still enjoys a cult following. De Carlo suffered a stroke at the Motion Picture home in Woodland Hills, California. She was 84 years old. Wolf, Paula?

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Carol. I remember that show very, very well. So do you, Paula.

ZAHN: We're portraying how old we are.

BLITZER: Everybody remembers the Munsters...


BLITZER: Are you kidding? A great show.

Just ahead, the president getting ready to announce his new plan for Iraq. We're here with special coverage before, during and after the speech, as well as the reaction. Coming up, we'll go live to the White House for the latest details on what the president will say.

ZAHN: Is this the president's last chance to fix Iraq? After nearly four years of war, many ideas have failed along the way, our senior national correspondent John Roberts will have more on that.


BLITZER: To our viewers you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

ZAHN: Happening now, we are standing by for a major presidential address that may be the last chance for Iraq. Tonight, President Bush will lay out what he thinks needs to happen to change Iraq from a place of killing, chaos and carnage to an example of stability and peace in the Middle East.

BLITZER: The president will say what many Americans do not want to hear. That he'll send at least, at least 21,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq over the next few months and that some could deploy within the next week alone. ZAHN: But will the president be able to sway Congress with his plan? Democratic leaders say they were never even consulted about it. And today at least two more Republican senators suggested they are growing restless. Norm Coleman of Minnesota says he doesn't support sending more troops to Iraq. Sam Brownback of Kansas says it's not the answer.

I'm Paula Zahn.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BLITZER: President Bush is set to tell the American people that a troop buildup in Iraq is the best way to quote, "hasten the day U.S. forces can come home."

ZAHN: But will this new strategy be the right one? Our senior national correspondent John Roberts is standing by. Right now, let's first though go back to White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, Paula, Wolf, as you know, President Bush really recognizes the stakes are extremely high. This is arguably the most important speech that he will make. This success or failure of the Iraq war will largely determine his presidency and his legacy, how he is evaluated.

President Bush will take this on. He will talk about the sense of urgency and, really, he will acknowledge failures in a hope that Americans will have faith in his new plan. An excerpt from the speech he says -- he starts off saying tonight in Iraq the armed forces of the United States are engaged in a struggle that will determine the direction of the global war on terror and our safety here at home. The new strategy I outline tonight will change America's course in Iraq, and help us succeed in the fight against terror."

Clearly, this is going to be a very tough sell to the American people. We have seen this before, we have seen the public relations campaigns, the series of speeches that they lay out, as well as these ideas about policy changes.

That is going to be the real challenge for this president, whether or not he lays out something that is a viable strategy or if it ends up just being another pep rally -- Paula, Wolf.

ZAHN: I guess everybody will be the judge of that in a little bit. Suzanne, thank you.

As Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, "It's deja vu all over again." This, of course, isn't the first time the president will come out with a plan to quell the violence in Iraq, but the plan we'll hear about tonight may be his last chance to get it right.

Our senior national correspondent John Roberts joins us with more on that -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good evening to you, Paula.

We've heard it again and again over the last four years. In fact, almost every time the president gives a speech about Iraq, that quote, it could be the most important speech of his presidency. Well, tonight's could be the most important speech of his presidency and Americans can be forgiven if it does give them a sense of deja vu.


ROBERTS (voice-over): If it feels like it's all been said before...

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've been discussing our political, economic and military strategy for victory in that country.

ROBERTS: ... it's because it probably has.

BUSH: It's a major new campaign to end the security crisis in Baghdad.

ROBERTS: From his most recent series of speeches during last year's campaign all the way back to the deck of the Abraham Lincoln...

BUSH: The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time.

ROBERTS: ... the president has repeatedly appealed for patience, while successive plans to stabilize Iraq have failed.

STEPHEN HESS, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think this is the last -- the last chance for him. He's got only two more years left in his administration. He needs as much popular support as he's apt to get from this speech.

ROBERTS: And does this last chance stand any better chance than plans before it?

Perhaps, says General Don Shepperd, if the president gives up his central idea of winning.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): The key, the key is turning the war over to the Iraqis, not Americans winning the war. Americans cannot bring security to Iraq, nor can they bring security to Baghdad.

ROBERTS: By increasing troops, President Bush is both following an old playbook to secure Iraqi elections...

BUSH: We will increase U.S. troop strength by about 12,000 personnel.

ROBERTS: ... and contradicting what he said six months later.

BUSH: Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. ROBERTS: Will the gamble pay off this time around? Here's what foreign policy expert Michael O'Hanlon told Congress today.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: This is the very best you could hope for out of a surge, is to get violence back to where it was maybe in 2004, or if you're really lucky, the more difficult parts of 2003.

ROBERTS: At risk for President Bush is legacy. Success could revive his presidency. Another failure could seal his place in history.

HESS: There's no question that the one line after his entry in the encyclopedia, George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, who chose to invade Iraq, and then whatever the consequences may be.

ROBERTS: And if it doesn't work, what then?

SHEPPERD: If this doesn't work, we leave Iraq, we put the best face on it we can, and we stand by for the next big event. And we be very, very careful and very steadied about committing ourselves to combat anywhere again.


ROBERTS: But some experts believe that if this plan doesn't work, the Iraq war is going to be passed off to the next administration and they're warning Democrats who are planning all of this symbolic wrist-slapping over the next week that they should consider they may just end up inheriting this whole mess -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that. John Roberts reporting.

We want to get a little bit more now on the president's address, what he plans to do, how he plans to sell his new plan for Iraq.

Joining us in tonight's strategy session, two CNN political analysts. Paul Begala is a Democratic strategist and Bay Buchanan is president of American Cause.

We're just learning right now -- we just got a statement from Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and potential presidential candidate. He now says this: "I support the president's increase in troops. Even more importantly, I support the change in strategy, the focus on security and the emphasis on a political and economical solution as being even more important than a military solution."

So like John McCain, a Republican presidential hopefully, certainly like Mitt Romney who supports the president, now Rudy Giuliani does as well.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And those are the three probably top tier Republican candidates running. I did notice that Sam Brownback, who's also considering a run for the presidency, very strong with social conservatives, today expressed great doubt about the escalation in Iraq. So that Republicans... (CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Remarkable for someone who's not -- this is not -- you saw on the air a minute ago, Norm Coleman, who is sort of a very vulnerable guy from Minnesota, might lose in 2008. Sam Brownback could keep his Senate seat as long as he likes, and he is running for president, in a very conservative Republican primary, and he's speaking out against this. It's terrible news for the president and the timing couldn't be worse for the president.

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's not terrible news for the president. This is one isolated case. You're going to have a number of Republican senators...

ZAHN: Well, he'd rather have them on his side.

BUCHANAN: Well, sure he would, but you've got -- you're going to have -- the majority of Republican leaders in this country are going to come out tomorrow and support the president's plan. He will have the overwhelming number of them.

The key here is, the party, as Republicans, will support the president. What are the Democrats going to do? Are they just going to talk about it? This is a nation at war. They've got to make their decision.

Are they going to be leaders or are they just sit around and say, I don't have the courage in my convictions. We'll deal with a nonbinding resolution but then we'll let the president do what he wants. We want to see real leadership out of these guys.

BLITZER: Here's a Democrat. Let's ask him. What do you think?

BEGALA: Here's what they're going to do. They're not going to vote to cut off the funding, and it's not about courage of their convictions. It is about making sure we don't cut off fund for troops who are in harm's way.

What they're going to do, I think, if they are smart -- and I think they are -- take the president's proposal tonight, put it on the floor for an up or down vote. It is symbolic, but it would be powerful symbolism.

Let's let the country know that if the Republicans all want to support Mr. Bush's plan, they can vote for it. If the Democrats oppose it, they should vote against it. I suspect the country's on the side of the Democrats here and they think it's not a good idea to escalate the war.

ZAHN: But what is really at stake for the larger audience this president is trying to reach tonight in his address? The American public. The latest Gallup poll showing the American public overwhelmingly against this war in Iraq and the majority of them opposed to putting more troops in.

BUCHANAN: Absolutely. ZAHN: So, what risk is the president playing tonight with his strategy with the American public? What can he turn around in this one 20-minute or so speech?

BUCHANAN: Well, it's not a risk for him in this -- that it's absolutely required of him. He's the commander in chief. We're at war as a nation. He has to decide what's the next step. What do we do next, understanding that the American people are not supporting this war?

So he has to go and reach out to them and say, listen, I believe there's one more possibility that we can prevent a bloodshed in Iraq. There's one chance here. And I've come together with a plan and I'm asking you for support.

That's why the leaders of the nation have to take a determined -- an absolute stand on this. Are they going to support the president in this one last effort to turn things around in Iraq or do they think there is no hope and we should leave now? That's what the Democrats are unwilling to do. It's what the Republicans are doing. They're taking a stand for or against.

ZAHN: Will the American public buy this sell tonight?

BEGALA: No, nor did they buy the last sell. I brought -- the last victory strategy, the last time the president had a P.R. campaign, here it is: victory in Iraq. That was his national strategy for victory in November of 2005. Here's tonight's, let's look at the -- down, if you guys get a shot of this. Look at the difference.

ZAHN: The red, white and blue is pretty similar.

BEGALA: Sure, slightly different color blue. It's the same font.

BUCHANAN: You know, Paul, that's so trite.

BEGALA: Well, tell the president that.

BUCHANAN: It is so trite.

BEGALA: It's the same old, same old.

BUCHANAN: You are talking about a piece of paper. His plan is what we're discussing here.

BEGALA: It's the same thing.

BUCHANAN: It is not the same thing.

BEGALA: Yes, it is the same thing. It is literally more of the same. It's the same failed strategy but just now we're going to extend the troop deployments for young men and women who are already busting their rear ends over there. We're going to extend their deployments while, by the way, back home we extend tax cuts for billionaires. It's not a politically saleable proposal. BUCHANAN: It has nothing the same at all. This is a dramatic change. We have different leaders in there. We've got -- basically he's told the Iraqi people that this is it. The government has a certain timetable in which they have to prove that it is going to work.

Basically what he is saying is, look, we know things have gone wrong. He's saying, I made mistakes but I've looked at this and I think I have a chance. And he's asking the American people to support this opportunity.

BLITZER: It may just be words, but words are important. Paul Begala used to write words for former President Bill Clinton. But a year ago they were talking about victory. That document, as all of us remember, clearly showed. I don't think you're going to hear the president talk about victory in his address tonight.

BUCHANAN: You're not, and that's very important because what's key in order to reach the American people, to actually turn them around, to have them say, listen, I don't know if it's going to work but I'll support this effort, is that he relates to them, that he uses words that they understand.

Too many days have gone by, too many speeches with victory in it where they say, look, there's no victory over there. I can't understand it. I can't believe what he's saying. Now they have to believe his words. So he's going to reach their hearts and say I know I've made mistake, please support this.

ZAHN: Let's talk more about the importance of language because Suzanne Malveaux was reading a couple excerpts from the speech the White House released, and there are several references connecting Iraq and what happens in Iraq to the overall war on global terror.

Does that card work anymore, Paul Begala?

BEGALA: I don't think so. I noticed the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, actually raised 9/11 again, which was -- you know, they've always treated that sort of like a cheap handgun in a bar fight. They pull it out all the time, but Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and voters now know that.

And here's the stuff the White House has put out. It's the first thing they say. It's critical to our success in the war on terror. Even if that is true, show me how you're going to win, Mr. President. And that's the problem. I think the American people have lost confidence in our president. He does have new commanders in the field because General Abizaid, General Dempsey, General Casey all said they don't want more troops there. And so Mr. Bush fired them after years of telling us he would just do what his military commanders said. He didn't like what the military commanders said. This is, as one Bush administration official said, a political ploy in search of a military rationale.

BUCHANAN: You, the key is -- look, the president coming out. He's the commander-in-chief. He's making a plan. What you're hearing from Paul is just what he did wrong, and he did it wrong last time, and, on my God...

We are at war. This is a serious time in this nation. You either support the president's plan or you come out and say it's not going to work and we can't support it...

BEGALA: It's not going to work and we can't support it.

BUCHANAN: ... the Democrats will do neither...

BEGALA: We can't support it. It's not going to work.

BUCHANAN: ... but they will vote for the funds to keep it going on.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there, guys.

Thanks very much, Paul Begala, Bay Buchanan, as usual.

And still ahead tonight right here in the SITUATION ROOM: it's one of the most important moments in his presidency. President Bush about to tell all of us how he hopes to try to fix Iraq. We're standing by to hear from the president.

ZAHN: Also, the families of many American troops are waiting to hear from the president. We will introduce you to one parent whose son died in Iraq and tell you what he thinks about more American troops going there.

We'll be right back.


ZAHN: Welcome back.

We're standing by for the president to address the American people on Iraq.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Paula.

We're watching all of this.

For many Americans, certainly the prospect of a troop increase in Iraq is troubling and that includes some families whose sons and daughters have been killed in the war. For them this debate is very, very personal.

Let's go to our chief national correspondent John King. He's joining us from Covington, Kentucky, with more on the story of one father's very personal struggle -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just across the river behind me you can see Cincinnati, Ohio. Ohio is home to Lima Company. That is a Marine Reserve unit that lost 23 men in Iraq back in 2005. To this day, that is the highest number of casualties for any company serving in Iraq. For the parents of Lima Company, those of the troops who came home and the parents of the fallen, Iraq is not a far away place and Iraq is not a bitter political debate. It is intensely personal.


KING (voice-over): The heroes of Lima Company are remembered in somber public memorials, and remembered 17 months later in the private shrines of parents, who still gasp when the doorbell rings, still hesitate to watch the news.

JOHN DYER, FATHER OF U.S. SOLDIER KILLED IN IRAQ: Every time I hear another casualty report, it's just -- it's like a knife going through me, because I know what that service person's family is going to feel like.

KING: Lance Corporal Christopher Dyer was 19 when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha. Back then, the U.S. death toll was at the 1,800 mark. And his father, who had questioned the war, wrote the president, urging him to win it.

DYER: But, if that could happen, then I might be able to reconcile myself to the -- seeing that my son's death had contributed to something.

KING: Dyer still feels that way, but worries Iraq has become too political, and the war itself off course.

DYER: Because I don't think we're any better off in Iraq than we were a year-and-a-half ago, with another 1,200 servicemen killed. And, in some ways, we're worse off.

KING: Isolde Zierk's newsletter kept Lima Company families informed during their long deployment. Her son is back home now. So, talk of a troop surge hits hard.

ISOLDE ZIERK, MOTHER OF LIMA COMPANY MARINE: My son could be another one that's -- you know, has to go back, even though we are not slated to go. But you have to find 20,000 or 30,000 people somewhere.

KING: Zierk supports the war, but knows Democratic gains in last year's elections proves she's outnumbered.

ZIERK: The majority is not satisfied and wanted a change.

KING: The Lima Company deaths were a turning point for public opinion here in Ohio, the state where Mr. Bush began the march to war with such certainty.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The threat comes from Iraq. It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Four years later, 72 percent of Americans disapprove of how Mr. Bush is handling Iraq, and 61 percent, in a "USA Today"/Gallup poll, oppose increasing troop levels.

DYER: In terms of his credibility, I think it's at an all-time low for most people.

KING: John Dyer keeps thinking, it's time to put most of this away.

DYER: This is obviously not even close to what we had in our dreams, or in his dreams.

KING: But he wants to believe Chris's death was not in vain, and will be listening to see if the president gives him hope.

DYER: Obviously, it's very depressing to -- sometimes, I can't even watch the news because of what's going on. But I just don't see an alternative to not staying and seeing it through. I'm trying to be hopeful and optimistic, but it is very difficult.


KING (on camera): And what is most striking when you sit down with these parents, parents like John Dyer, who of course have paid the ultimate prices, they don't talk in the black and white terms that we hear back in Washington. They don't speak as Democrats or Republicans. They're not so much for the president or against the president.

In John Dyer's case, for example, he says, "Look, Mr. Bush has made a number of mistakes, a long list." He hopes he will be candid in acknowledging them tonight.

But, Wolf and Paula, he also says Mr. Bush is going to be president for two more years and he wishes the Democrats would have a conversation with the president and the president would have a conversation back, instead of what he sees as an overly partisan political debate that doesn't advance solutions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I know I speak for all of us, John, when I say our hearts go out to that family and, indeed, to the families of all those who have been killed in Iraq.

John King reporting for us. Thank you very much.

Still to come, we're standing by for the president's address to the nation. Mr. Bush announcing he's sending an additional 21,000- plus troops to Iraq in an effort to turn around the war.

ZAHN: Is it his last chance to salvage the mission as well as his legacy? We're going to ask the best political team on TV about that. Our John Roberts, Candy Crowley, Bill Schneider, all standing by. I can see them.

You guys have one-minute warning here. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're standing by for the president's address to the American people, perhaps one of the most important speeches of his presidency. It's certainly a high-stakes strategy shift for the president. He'll have to sell the public on the idea that putting more troops in harm's way is the way, ultimately, to get American troops out of Iraq. If this move, though, fails, there may be few other options for the U.S. mission there.

ZAHN: So we're going to turn once again to our senior national correspondent John Roberts, along with our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley and CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider. No juniors here tonight, except for Wolf and me.

ROBERTS: Seniors in this room, AARP, you remember?

ZAHN: Automatically, that comes with the territory. So, the bottom line is tonight that the president's success of this plan rests solely with the prime minister of Iraq. You have talked to a lot of people about how effective this speech may be. What are they saying about any degree of confidence they have in Mr. Maliki leading up to any promises that might be carved out?

ROBERTS: You see, here's the thing. I don't think that this relies solely on Maliki because he's not the sum total of power in Iraq.

ZAHN: But the Iraqi government and the government structure.

ROBERTS: Yes, you have so many other people though who have such vested interests and so many competing interests in Iraq that even if Maliki and Maliki did say today to members of the Mehdi militia, they said lay down your arms or else you face an attack by the U.S., which is something new. He doesn't have the power to say that because the Mehdi militia that controls Muqtada al-Sadr can say no, we want to do what we want to do and then the Sunni insurgents can say we're going to do what we want to do. So he's not the absolute power broker. There's so many people that would need to come together for this thing to work, and at the moment they get too much out of fighting each other.

ZAHN: But he's critical to the success of this.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: He is critical and, Paula, you put your finger on the problem for the American people. The success of this plan depends not on what we do, but on what the Iraqi government does. And that's why the public has a real problem. They have confidence in the American military and their ability to get the job done. They don't have a lot of confidence in the Iraqi government and its ability to hold the country together.

This is a government that could not manage an execution and now we're expecting it to create a political reconciliation among warring factions. Our success depends on what they do. Americans don't have a lot of confidence. BLITZER: President Kennedy's (sic) got a lot of credibility problems right now, not only with the American public, with the Democrats, but increasingly with the Republicans.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He does. We've seen some key Republicans peel off. We've seen -- there's an interesting political element. Some of them who are up for election or re-election in two years.

But the fact of the matter is, this White House is not looking for some big old bounce, as we used to call it, you know, after the speech it goes up 10 points. What they found over the course of this war, is that increasingly, it doesn't matter what he says. He maybe gets a couple of points because some of his base comes back to him, but it doesn't persuade Americans. So they obviously think of this as phase one, but they know very well that what's going to persuade Americans is a change on the ground in Iraq.

BLITZER: What is going to persuade Americans, John, is when Americans stop dying in Iraq.

ROBERTS: Or when they start coming home. I mean, there's no way to stop them dying immediately, but it's an open-ended commitment at this point, even though the president says that he's told al-Maliki it is not going to be an open-ended commitment. When can the American troops start coming home? And all indications are that unless they just make a conscious effort to bring them home, this idea of we'll stand down as they stand up is still a very, very long way away.

CROWLEY: And he's trying to sell a counterintuitive argument which is, if I send more troops in, they'll come home more quickly. If I don't, they're going to have to stay there for a long time. So it's a tough sell on the credibility issue. It's a tough sell just on the sheer rationale basis because people are going to look at that and say, what is he talking about here?

ROBERTS: That's just to nod the criticism, though, of people who say, well like Harry Reid who said last week, well maybe I can support this if I had some sort of idea that it would result in troops being able to come home.

ZAHN: Bill Schneider, you're the man that studies public polls and public opinion more than any of the rest of us. Is this plan going to be perceived as a slap in the face to the American public, most of who came out in the mid-term election and said we don't like the way things are going in Iraq and in recent polls have said we don't want more troops going into Iraq?

SCHNEIDER: A lot of people are going to be very angry. I think Democrats are going to be enraged. They're going to say the people spoke in November. They wanted Americans to start coming home. The establishment spoke in the Iraq Study Group report. Now the Democratic Congress is speaking. I think what it might take a lot of people have concluded is for Republicans to start speaking out and they are. BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much, Candy Crowley, John Roberts, all part of the best political team on television. Thanks, guys very much.

And still ahead, as we await the president's address to the nation, the Iraq Study Group made many recommendations, but the president appears to be doing something else. Jack Cafferty wants to know, what was the purpose of having an Iraq Study Group? Jack with your e-mail, that's coming up.

ZAHN: And coming up in our next hour, are Pentagon officials on board with the president's plan for Iraq? Our own Jamie McIntyre is gauging that and he will join us with the report. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. As we await the president's address to the nation, let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File." Jack?

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is what is the purpose of having an Iraq Study Group?

Gary in Pittsford, New York writes: "Jack, that's simple. The point was to give the illusion the administration's actually interested in what anyone other than themselves think. Nothing more, nothing less."

Matt in Pinewood Springs, Colorado: "Easy. The reason for the Iraq Study Group was to stall moving forward until after the election."

Barbara in Middletown, New York: "The purpose of the Iraq Study Group was -- I give up. It's purpose certainly wasn't to provide the president with more advice that he's not interested in following."

Kevin in Mechanicsville, Virginia: "It was an attempt by President Bush Sr. to throw a ladder into the hole that President Bush Jr. has dug for himself. Junior fired, promoted, transferred, retired everyone leaning toward the ladder option and has decided he'll stay the shovel course."

Joy in Durham, Maine: "It was a good idea to have the Iraq Study Group because by ignoring it, the president looks like the zealous dictator he has become. Apparently he thinks he can rule like Hugo Chavez, unilaterally. He has no slogans. All he has is slogans, he has no plan, no principle, no concern for Americans. All for big oil and the legacy."

And Chris in Flemington, New Jersey: "It's really very simple, Jack. Since President Bush never experienced a study group while at school, he thought it would be fun to have one while spending time at the White House."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to There's more of this rich material online. Wolf, Paula?

ZAHN: Never too subtle, is it? Thanks, Jack.