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The Situation Room

California Primary Moved Up; Gonzales Under Fire; Iraq War Showdown; Mel Martinez Interview

Aired March 15, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And it's happening right now, a California political earthquake in the presidential campaign. The mega state makes February 5th even more of a super duper date. I'll have a rare interview with the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, about the benefits and the fallout from his primary move.
Also this hour, the Bush White House in the trenches.

Will new Congressional votes on Iraq wound the president even as his attorney general remains under intense fire?

And presidential candidate John McCain is back on the bus. Paul Begala and Bill Bennett are on board with us to answer this question -- can Senator McCain reclaim his maverick image?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Also happening right now, the United States Senate -- the vote has started on a Democratic resolution that would start bring home you can bet that in the next few months and remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within a year.

We're watching the roll call. We'll get an update from you shortly. Our Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill right now.

Once again, the first vote on this Democratic resolution to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. That vote now underway. We're standing by for the roll call.

Also happening right now, the early stakes in this, the 2008 presidential race. Those stakes are higher than ever right now. California today sealed its new role as a power broker in the first critical weeks of the primary season. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation moving up California's presidential primary from June to February 5th. As many as 20 other states may wind up holding their contests on that date, as well.

But California may be the most influential anchor of what many are now calling Super Duper Tuesday.

I spoke with Governor Schwarzenegger just a short while ago.


BLITZER: Bottom line -- you want California in this presidential selection process to once again become a king maker.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, I'll tell you, Wolf, that it is very important that California is part of the mix in the decision-making of who should be our nominees because up until now, by having the June primary, you know, by that time, before the voters ever had a chance to vote, it was already locked in who the candidate is. And I think that is unfair to California because we are number one, the number one state in the union.


BLITZER: Much more on my interview -- in fact, the whole interview with Governor Schwarzenegger. That's coming up. I'll ask him about his own potential role as a potential king maker in the Republican presidential race, who he likes, who he doesn't like.

California's big move isn't sitting well with New Hampshire. The traditional leadoff primary state has enjoyed decades of political influence far beyond its size.

Our own senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us now from New Hampshire with more -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, two new laws went into effect today. One moves California's presidential primary. The other governs its impact, and that one's called the law of unintended consequences.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): California has moved.

SCHWARZENEGGER: We're talking about moving the primary, the presidential primary, from June to February, has already elevated California's status for the 2008 presidential campaign.

SCHNEIDER: New Hampshire feels like it's being invaded by the Evil Empire.

How can New Hampshire defend itself?

By saying we're small.

MAYOR FRANK GUINTA (R), MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE: The only way to have a conversation with a regular, average person is in a state where retail politics is the norm and it's demanded and it's taken seriously.

SCHNEIDER: We're cheap. And our voters are fully engaged.

GUINTA: The people in New Hampshire do take it seriously here. It's a badge of honor. It is a state sport.

KATHY SULLIVAN, NEW HAMPSHIRE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRWOMAN: No, skiing is actually the state sport, but politics is certainly a major hobby. SCHNEIDER: With California moving up, we will have, in effect, a national primary on February 5th. And the law of unintended consequences will go into effect. Mark Warner, Evan Bayh and Tom Vilsack have already dropped out of the race.

SULLIVAN: The candidates who are looking at it and saying realistically, they just can't raise the money, are already dropping out.

SCHNEIDER: California's move could make a candidate's performance in New Hampshire more important, not less.

SULLIVAN: If you have a candidate who looks like, because of their poor performance early on, can't win the presidency, I don't think Democrats vote for them in the February 5th events. Democrats want to win. This is -- this is big.

SCHNEIDER: And how is this for an unintended consequence?

The nominating contest could end before California.

SULLIVAN: But I think, realistically, this is over at the end of January. So that everything the DNC was trying to do stood on its head.

SCHNEIDER: So instead of being first in the nation, New Hampshire can end up with a role it doesn't want.

SULLIVAN: New Hampshire has never said we want to be last in the nation.


SCHNEIDER: Everything depends on how California voters respond to what happens here in New Hampshire. Now, suppose a California -- a candidate -- falters in New Hampshire and California voters bring that candidate back to life. Then New Hampshire will look irrelevant.

But if California -- if New Hampshire propels a candidate to victory and California then also makes that candidate a winner, New Hampshire will look more important than ever -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This early move, moving up California from June to early February, do you have a sense which candidates specifically this helps, this hurts?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think it helps candidates who are well known and who have a lot of money. It costs millions and millions of dollars to run in California. And that would most likely be Senator Clinton in the Democratic Party; and Rudy Giuliani, possibly John McCain, also. He's raising a lot of money, in the Republican primary. Those are the candidates who have national name recognition.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

We're also going to be very busy. By the way, California is one of eight states now officially scheduled to hold their presidential contest on February 5th. In New Mexico, only the Democrats will vote on that day. In West Virginia, it's only the Republicans. Twelve other states are considering moving up their contests to the first Tuesday in February. They include some large and pivotal states, such as Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

If all 20 of those states hop on the Super Duper Tuesday bandwagon, more than 74 million registered voters will have the opportunity to choose a presidential nominee on that day. And that's more than half of all registered voters in the United States.

Let's go now to that firestorm surrounding the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today gave the green light for some subpoenas of current and former Justice Department officials. The panel is investigating how Gonzales handled the firing of eight federal prosecutors.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is following the investigation.

She's joining us live with more -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, of course, the big question is whether or not Attorney Alberto Gonzales is going to survive all of this.

But the first question that has to be answered, the Hill has to determine whether or not the Bush administration canned those group of federal attorneys for political reasons.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): He's the only Republican calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to be fired. But the White House fears he may be just the first.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: He certainly has lost the confidence of most members of Congress and the American public.

MALVEAUX: White House Spokesman Tony Snow said they are disappeared in Sununu. But privately, senior administration officials are trying to minimize the damage, painting him as a constant complainer, who has accused the administration of violating American civil liberties in carrying out the war on terror.

And administration officials insist Gonzales's job is safe.

But today, the Senate Judiciary Committee demonstrated just how serious they are, authorizing subpoenas for five top Justice Department officials to testify before them, in case Gonzales backs out of his offer to allow them to speak voluntarily. But the committee's Republican members were able to postpone the vote on whether to subpoena top White House aides for at least a week, citing ongoing negotiations with White House lawyers.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The subpoena issue has to be handled with great delicacy.

MALVEAUX: But Democratic say White House officials are not getting a pass.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: If I do not get their cooperation, I will subpoena. We will have testimony under oath before this committee.

MALVEAUX: One person they want to hear from is White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Today, he spoke publicly for the first time about the escalating controversy.

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: This, to my mind, is a lot of politics. And I understand that's what Congress has the right to play around with and they're going to do it.


MALVEAUX: Now, Wolf, Rove also mentioned, as well, that President Clinton actually fired -- dismissed all 93 federal attorneys on his watch, at least before he took office, to replace with his own team when he first started off. He said, of course, that was his presidential prerogative.

But as we know, Wolf, one big difference between then and now is there was no Patriot Act with a clause that essentially allowed the president to appoint these attorneys without the Senate's approval.

And that is really what concerns a lot of those lawmakers. They believe that it really tips the balance here, perhaps even an abuse of power, between the legislative and executive branches -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll watch this story with you, Suzanne.

Thanks very much.

Suzanne Malveaux, Bill Schneider -- they are both part of the best political team on television. And remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at

President Bush got an update on the security crackdown in Baghdad today from one of Iraq's vice presidents, even as Congress took steps toward trying to end the war.

The Shiite leader, Adel Abdul Mahdi, reports better than expected progress in tightening security in the Iraqi capital. But he cautions the crackdown still needs more time.

Mr. Bush welcomed the improvements. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I appreciate very much the progress that you are making. I know it's hard work. It's hard work to overcome distrust that has built up over the years because your country was ruled by a tyrant that created distrust amongst people.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

He's in New York for The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.


Score one for the House Democrats. The House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of a plan that would require the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq before September of 2008, maybe even sooner. This provision was tacked onto the $124 billion emergency spending bill that passed in a largely party line committee vote by a margin of 36-28.

Republicans wanted to strip out the troop withdrawal timetable. They accused Democrats of trying to micromanage the war, doing the job of the generals. And when it comes down to it, even if the House Democrats won this battle today, the outlook is not nearly as sunny over on the other side of the aisle in the Senate.

Republicans there can use procedural moves to block the troop withdrawal language. Also, the White House has threatened to veto the bill if it contains that provision.

So the question is this for this hour -- is it fair to tie funding for the war in Iraq to a deadline for pulling out the troops?

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

BLITZER: And they've just started voting, Jack, in the U.S. Senate on the first of these resolutions the Democrats are pushing that calls for a withdrawal of all combat forces a year from now, but actually starts an implementation of the withdrawal over the next few months. That vote, the roll call is underway right now.

CAFFERTY: Well, and one of the things the Democrats are trying to do with this is to get people on the record so that later on, farther, perhaps, into the campaign season, they can bring up these votes and beat them over the head with it.

BLITZER: We're going to watch that roll call. As soon as we get the results, we'll go up to the Hill, Jack.

Thank you for that.

Also coming up, will Republicans turn on the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales?

One has so far, as you just saw in Suzanne Malveaux's report. That's John Sununu.

But is there a new split developing within the GOP?

I'll ask the chairman of the Republican Party, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida.

Also coming up, John McCain returns to the Straight Talk Express.

Will it help him refuel or re-energizing his presidential campaign?

And California signs on to the February 5th primary boomlet.

Will that make Governor Schwarzenegger a king maker?

Paul Begala and Bill Bennett, they're standing by live for our Strategy Session.

All that coming up, as well as my one-on-one interview with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The tally is now in the U.S. Senate in the Democrats' effort to get a resolution passed that would start bringing home U.S. troops from Iraq has failed, 50-48. The Republicans have the votes. Democrats, even though they have a 51-49 majority in the Senate, did not manage to get enough votes.

Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, he voted in favor of the resolution. Joe Lieberman, the Independent, who goes with the Democratic Caucus, he voted against the resolution, as did Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator from Nebraska. Mark Pryor, the Democratic Senator from Arkansas, also voted with the Republicans, largely along party lines.

But, once again, in a vote of 50-48, the Democrats' effort to start setting a time line, a timetable for U.S. troops, U.S. combat troops to withdrawal from Iraq, all of them out by a year from now, April 1st of this coming -- of next year, that resolution has failed.

I think Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill -- is she ready?


How are you?

BLITZER: All right, Dana, go ahead and governors the sense of what happened.

BASH: Well, what happened is what you just saw is, you know, after nearly two months of the Senate being deadlocked or delayed on being able to actually vote in terms of what the Democrats wanted on what to do on Iraq. This is the very first time you saw a real vote on a measure that Democrats hoped would have tried to force the president to change policy in Iraq.

And as you said, it failed, 50-48. That was the vote. So the Senate Democrats didn't even get a simple majority, which would have been 51 votes, in order to pass this.

Now, this is significant, if you ask the Democrats, because, they say that this at least, for the first time, puts the Senate on record on the issue, as you mentioned, of the idea of troop withdrawal. It sets a goal for U.S. troops to come home in April of 2008.

So this is something that is significant in that it was the very first time the Senate tried to pass this, and it failed, not even getting a majority of the vote -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a -- it's a success, if you will, for the Republicans. They managed to bring over a couple of Democrats to support the Republican side -- Pryor of Arkansas; Nelson of Nebraska; Lieberman, as we all knew, he would vote with the Republicans on this issue.

Gordon Smith, the Republican of Oregon, is very passionately against this troop increase. He did side with the Democrats, 50-48. I know that Senator Johnson, he's still ill, and, obviously, he can't vote.

But why did the Democrats do this if they didn't know for sure that they would win at least a simple majority?

Given the fact that they are the majority, why did they want to risk losing on this kind of vote?

BASH: Well, just the opposite, Wolf.

They actually were pretty sure that they were going to lose, that they weren't even going to get a simple majority. You know, I asked that question to a top Senate Democratic aide today. I said, you know, this is going to look like a big loss for you.

And over and over what he and other Democrats insist is that they at least want to get the Senate on the record because they say that they are going to try to show that Republicans are sticking with the president. And if you ask Democrats, they say they are running up against public opinion which shows that Americans now do want troops to start coming home from Iraq. And Americans, certainly, if you look at almost all polls, show that they are simply fed up with what's going on in Iraq.

So, from a public opinion standpoint, Democrats insist that Republicans are siding with the president over Americans. But you're right, when you look at the hard core votes, there is no way to get around the fact that Democrats simply did not get a simple majority here. Now, and, also, we should be -- we should remind our viewers that Democrats only have a razor thin majority. They only have a one vote majority. And now, with one of their Democrats who is -- hasn't been here, Senator Tim Johnson, as you mentioned, they barely even -- they really don't even have that.

So, this is -- this is going to be the beginning, Democrats insist, of several votes to come.

Wolf, what is interesting is that this is just the beginning, because they're also going to have to pass money to -- to go for the war, and that's going to be a whole different fight that's going to start very soon in the Senate.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, a good explanation.

Thanks very much for that.

We'll stay on top of this story.

Once again, just to recap, the Democrats' efforts to get a resolution passed in the Senate, a resolution that would start bringing home U.S. combat troops, that has failed by a vote of 50-48. But the Democrats say they thought it would fail. They just wanted to get Republicans, basically, and a couple of Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, on record in support, in effect, of the president's Iraq strategy.

The political fallout will be discussed here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also coming up, my interview with the chairman of the Republican Party, Mel Martinez, the senator from Florida.

And John McCain is trying to get on a roll in Iowa at a time when his presidential campaign has been losing some steam.

Has he found the ticket to gaining on Rudy Giuliani?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring a lot of developments coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's the latest -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we just got word of this. Four more American troops die in Iraq bombings and it could have been worse. The four soldiers died today when two roadside bombs blasted their vehicles in eastern Baghdad. One device detonated near the vehicles, a second one shortly after.

After the bombings, crews found an additional explosive device and detonated it. The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq now stands at 3,207.

A newly released Pentagon report says some elements of the Iraq conflict are "properly descriptive of a civil war." The report points to the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities in the changing character of the violence. It also says attacks and casualties documented at the end of last year are the highest since the conflict began four years ago.

Six nations now intensifying their efforts to pressure Iran into abandoning its nuclear program. Germany, the U.S. Britain, China, France and Russia have reached an agreement on a proposal for new sanctions against Iran. They include a ban on Iranian arms exports, a travel ban on people connected to Iran's nuclear program and an expanded assets freeze on companies and individuals involved in nuclear activities.

The suspected mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is admitting to those attacks, and every other grizzly attack, it seems. The admissions are revealed in a transcript of a U.S. military hearing that took place on Saturday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Some of the attacks Mohammed says he's responsible for include the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the Richard Reid shoe bomb attempt to blow up a plane over the Atlantic and the Bali nightclub bombing in Indonesia.

Mohammed also says he's the person who personally decapitated "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl back in 2002.

That's the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have more on this story coming up in our next hour.

Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is shaking up the presidential race. He's made a big change to California's calendar.

My interview with Governor Schwarzenegger -- that'll be coming up later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, John McCain is struggling to build momentum in his race against Rudy Giuliani. The Straight Talk Express hits the road again.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Happening now, we're learning that even more U.S. troops may now be headed toward Iraq. We're going to tell you when that's likely to happen, where they might go, why they're likely going. All that coming up. Also, presidential candidates won't have California to push around anymore. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying it's unfair for those seeking their party's nominations to focus more on states with early primaries or caucuses. So the governor is trying to right what he considers a wrong. Governor Schwarzenegger -- he'll be here to explain in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And the real devil is in the details -- Rudy Giuliani's law firm making money off the man who calls President Bush the devil. We're going to tell you about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Republican presidential candidate and some surprising business ties.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's start off with Capitol Hill, where Democrats in both chambers have been very busy over the past few hours, trying to push a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq.

The Senate just wrapped up a pivotal vote, as we have been reporting.

Let's turn to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- failure for the Democrats in the Senate; a modest success over in a committee in the House.

Update our viewers on -- on all the developments -- Dana.


The Senate just rejected, by a vote of 48 to 50, a bid by Senate Democrats to set a deadline for troop withdrawal in Iraq. But, just as you said, over in the House, Democrats in charge there fared a little bit better, at least in the short term.


BASH (voice-over): It is the Democratic majority's first real attempt at forcing the president to change his Iraq policy.


BASH: A bill to bring all U.S. combat traps home by September 2008 passed a key House committee almost entirely along party lines.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Let me tell you, you talk to the families, you would know how hard this was on the family. You would know what a pain they bear -- not us, them -- that they bear, the ones that are killed and out in the field.

BASH: Under the Democrats' plan, troops could begin leaving Iraq as soon as July of this year, if President Bush can't prove Iraqis are meeting political and security-related benchmarks.

REP. BILL YOUNG (R), FLORIDA: We should not set the timetable. We should not determine the troop movement. BASH: Republicans slammed Democrats for trying to micromanage the commander in chief.

REP. JERRY LEWIS (R), CALIFORNIA: I do not believe this Congress should constitute its wisdom for that of our commanders in the field.

BASH: The hard deadline for troops to leave Iraq is part of a $124 billion bill to fund the war. Twenty-one billion dollars were added by Democrats, mostly as sweeteners to attract votes from a divided caucus, things that have nothing to do with war, like $25 million for spinach producers, $5 million for tropical fish breeders, $74 million for peanut storage.

REP. HAL ROGERS (R), KENTUCKY: Welcome, Kmart shoppers. This is the shopping mart for those who have nervousness about the thinly veiled attempt to withdraw ourselves from Iraq, against good military advice.


BASH: Now, the full House will take this up for the -- for a debate. It is expected to be at least next week. The president, of course, has already threatened to veto this.

But, Wolf, that might not even be an issue, because the big question now is, what happens when this gets to the Senate? Senators -- Democrats in the Senate have a lot less of an appetite to use the war funding bill to try to stop the war in Iraq.

BLITZER: Democrats couldn't even get the 51 votes, let alone the 60 they would need to break a procedural hurdle. Given the rules of the Senate, they have got a lot of work ahead of them...

BASH: They sure do.

BLITZER: ... if they want to see this move forward. Thank you, Dana...

BASH: Thank you.

BLITZER: ... for that.

President Bush and members of his own party are grappling with major headaches right now, from the war in Iraq, to the new flap over those fired federal prosecutors. Top Republican leaders are trying to gauge the political pain for the GOP, even as the 2008 race for the White House begins in earnest.


BLITZER: And joining us now, the chairman of the Republican Party, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Let me read to you what your Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire said yesterday.

He said: "We must have a strong, credible attorney general who holds the confidence of Congress and the American people. I do not believe Alberto Gonzales can fill that role. The president should fire the attorney general and replace him as soon as possible."

You agree with Senator Sununu?

MARTINEZ: Well, no. I think my good friend from New Hampshire is jumping the gun just a bit.

I think that this is a difficult situation, and one that I feel personally, because I consider Alberto Gonzales a good friend. We served together in the president's administration.

However, I think it would be important for us to get the facts out first. The Judiciary Committee held some hearings this morning on this issue. More are planned. And I think we should get the facts out, Wolf, before we just headlong jump into calling for -- for firings.

Alberto Gonzales has acknowledged mistakes. And the president said he is not happy about them. I would let the process work through a little bit before we start jumping in and asking for his resignation.

BLITZER: You still have confidence, though, in -- in your friend, the attorney general?

MARTINEZ: I do, indeed, have confidence in him. He's a very good man.

Now, that's not to say that mistakes weren't made. And, at some point, it may be that -- that a different decision might need to be made. But let's get the facts out first. Let's let the attorney general explain himself. Let's let all of the facts come out. And then we can make judgments based on the facts, not just on, you know, jumping the gun and going after it.

And, frankly, a lot of this is political, as well. And I think, at some point, we have got to take a deep breath and recognize that this is about the attorney general of the United States. And it is an important time in the nation's history. And we need to be cautious about it.

BLITZER: In order to get the facts out, should top current and former White House officials come before the Congress and testify under oath, specifically, Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the former White House legal counsel?

MARTINEZ: Well, I can see how Harriet Miers would be an appropriate witness. I'm not so sure Karl Rove has much to do with this. That is, again, injecting politics into it. But I think all of those that are relevant to the investigation should certainly come and testify before the Congress. The Congress has an important oversight responsibility. And I'm not suggesting that should be abdicated. I'm just saying, let's get the facts -- the facts out first.

BLITZER: But his name does comes up in a lot of these e-mails that the White House released: Karl Rove wants this. He -- he's happy about that. He won't be happy if you do this.

It seems like he -- he had a direct role in some of these decisions.

MARTINEZ: Well, the White House counsel was Harriet Miers. And I think these contacts were directed to the White House counsel. And, while Rove may have an opinion, he's deputy chief of staff. If appropriate, he probably should testify as well. I'm not trying to remove him from the possibility of testimony.

I'm just saying let's make sure that it's directed at getting out the facts and investigating, and not just at a political witch-hunt.

BLITZER: The new "TIME" magazine that is coming out today has a cover of Ronald Reagan. And they -- they -- they put a tear coming out of his right eye -- the headline, "How the Right Went Wrong. What Would Ronnie Do? And Why the Republican Candidates Need to Reclaim the Reagan Legacy" -- a cover story by Karen Tumulty.

The -- the most recent poll on this subject, "Are you satisfied with the current field in your party?" 57 -- almost six out of 10 Republicans are not satisfied. They would like to see more choices in the Republican presidential field.

Why do you think that is -- that dissatisfaction is so prevalent?

MARTINEZ: I think that we came through a tough election cycle. And I think there's a lot of anxiety with the current situation in Iraq and just the status of politics in America.

But I have got to tell you, I think that the key to winning is to regain Ronald Reagan's optimism, his belief in America, and his (INAUDIBLE) optimism in that America had a solution to the world's problems and in order to make people's lives better.

And I think the candidate that captures that mantle of optimism and looking forward to solving people's problems is going to be the one that's going to succeed through our primaries.

You know, we have an array of candidates. More may join the field. That's one of the great things about a democratic free market system. More can join. And if, in fact, that type of point of view persists, maybe more people will get in the race.

I believe that what we have so far is that we have got very good candidates that are going to do an excellent job in presenting themselves. It's just too early in the process, and we have such an array of candidates, that it's taking people a little bit of time to make a choice. I would rather have the array of choices that we have on our side than to have a very limited choice on the Democrats' side.

BLITZER: California moved up its primary to February 5 today.

What about your state of Florida? What are you going to do?

MARTINEZ: Florida is going to move its primary up. The legislature is in session now. They're talking about moving it up ahead of California, on January 29.

I heard your conversation with the governor, and I think Florida views it the very same way. It's a way to be relevant and a way to be noticed.

From the standpoint of the Republican Party, we really don't take a position on this. We really would leave it up to the states. However, there are party rules that require that primaries not take place before February 5. So, those states which move them ahead of that date may risk some penalties, which are, frankly, unavoidable and must be enforced by the party.

BLITZER: How much is the war in Iraq casting a shadow over Republicans right now and your chances for recapturing the House or Senate and staying in the White House in 2008?

MARTINEZ: There's no question that the war in Iraq is a very big issue.

But I think, also, we have to recognize that there are signs of some optimism coming out of Iraq. And circumstances could change in the -- over the next year. I also believe that it's much too early to really know what are going to be the defining issues in the -- in the next presidential cycle. And I think that '08 is still a ways away. Politics moves awfully rapidly.

I think, also, we need to be looking to solutions to our domestic problems. The issues of climate changes, like the governor was discussing, the issues of health care, very important. I don't think there's any question that those two issues, the environment and health care, are going to be front and center in the presidential debates of the '08 election.

BLITZER: Senator Mel Martinez, thanks very much for coming in.

MARTINEZ: Good to see you, Wolf.


BLITZER: I spoke with Senator Martinez earlier today, before these votes in the Senate and the House on these resolutions involving the war in Iraq.

We are going to have an update on what's going on, on that front. That's coming up. Also coming up: a big change in the presidential primary calendar. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is directly behind it. The governor's new muscle -- ahead in THE SITUATION -- in -- in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, John McCain is firing up the Straight Talk Express bus. He's trying to get his presidential bid back on course. Will it work? Candy Crowley is out on the campaign trail.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: And the Senate has just had another roll call -- this time, the vote 96-2, a vote endorsing supporting the U.S. troops in Iraq -- 96-2, almost all of the Democrats and Republicans coming together on this vote.

The two voting, for some unknown reason -- at least I don't understand it yet -- Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, they were the two who voted against this resolution supporting the troops. We will try to find out why they decided they didn't like this specific resolution.

This vote comes on the heels of the other resolution, the more significant resolution, 48-50, the Democrats losing in a bid to pass binding language that would start a U.S. combat troop withdrawal from Iraq within the coming months, and have all U.S. troops out of Iraq a year from now -- that resolution going down to defeat, largely along party lines, 50 against, the Republicans largely voting for those -- for -- against that resolution, the Democrats 48 in favor.

Two of the no-show votes in the Senate, Timothy Johnson, who's recuperating from a brain injury at a hospital, at a -- at a nursing home here in Washington -- he obviously couldn't come in, the senator from South Dakota.

Also not voting today, because he's out on the campaign trail, that would be Senator John McCain. He's trying to recapture some of the excitement from his presidential campaign in 2000.

And, in fact, he's pulling his campaign bus, the so-called Straight Talk Express, out of the mothballs.

Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is along for the ride in Iowa -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, John McCain has been in the U.S. Senate for 20 years. That is a rough place to start an outside independent campaign, the kind McCain had just seven years ago.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Good morning. How are you?


MCCAIN: How you doing?



CROWLEY (voice-over): All aboard the Straight Talk Express, as John McCain tries, in picture and rhetoric, to recreate his insurgent candidacy, the one that almost overthrew the campaign of George W. Bush.

MCCAIN: Deja vu all over again.

CROWLEY: The problem is, the maverick of 2000 has been swimming in the mainstream lately. Can he find his mojo there for 2008?

MCCAIN: I'm still the same candidate I was, a little bit older, but still the same candidate. We're still having fun, still on the bus, still have the town hall meetings in the same way that we were before. And I'm convinced we're doing fine.


CROWLEY: Now a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, McCain has spent the past few years in the mainstream, courting the party faithful, making up with evangelicals he once dissed, picking up Bush staffers, Bush fun raisers, Bush supporters. It has taken the glow off.

And now the outsider looks like ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and he has the poll numbers to prove it, leading McCain by double digits among Republicans. There is also the matter of the war. McCain is so hawkish, it often seems to be his war as much as the president's. The position has cost him support, but he greets it head on.

MCCAIN: I am convinced that, if we lose this war -- this conflict, and leave, they will follow us home.

CROWLEY: McCain's strategists believe, even if the country is now predominantly anti-war, voters will give McCain credit for his years as a Vietnam prisoner of war and his credentials as a military expert. In short, they believe voters will see McCain as having the right stuff for dangerous times.

MCCAIN: The transcendent issue of this campaign will be this conflict we are in between good and evil, between the forces of radical Islamic extremism that are trying to destroy America and everything we believe in. I'm qualified. I know the face of war. I know the face of evil. I will win. We will win.


CROWLEY: McCain's strategists say they're not worried about Rudy Giuliani's lead in the polls. Said one adviser, "We have a plan, and we're on it" -- Wolf. BLITZER: Thank you very much, Candy, for that report -- Candy Crowley on the campaign trail.

Here are some of the reasons, by the way, why Senator McCain feels the need to try to jump-start his campaign. In our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, McCain was running slightly behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani back in October. But look at this. Over the course of the last few months, McCain has lost considerable ground to Giuliani. McCain now trails Giuliani by 16 points among registered Republicans -- registered Republicans -- nationwide.

Up next in our "Strategy Session": California wants an early say. Which presidential contenders does that help? That's next with Paul Begala and Bill Bennett.

Stick around. We will be right back.


BLITZER: California's plan to move up its presidential primary from June to February, it's setting up a high-stakes scramble for delegates.

In the meantime, there's word Florida is considering moving up its primary to the end of January. We just heard that from Senator Mel Martinez.

Joining us in today's "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and the host of "Morning in America," the radio show, Bill Bennett.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Who does this help? Who does this hurt, first of all, on the Democratic side, the fact that California and all these super- duper other states are going to be early in February, as opposed to March, April, or May or June.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first, let me do something that I have probably never done before, which is show some humility.


BEGALA: Nobody is repealing the law of unintended consequences. The truth is, I don't really know who it's going to help or hurt.

I think, though, the best guess -- and this is what you're paying me for -- is that it will -- it will help the -- the best-funded candidate. You know, Democrats don't like to -- to think of themselves as the party of big money, but it's going to help the Democrat who has the most money. I suspect it will help the Republican who has the most money as well.

BLITZER: Right now, Hillary Clinton has the most money, by far.

BEGALA: Right now. But Barack Obama has shown a great capacity to raise money. And John Edwards, do not count him out. He's a trial lawyer. And trial lawyers tend to give very heavily to -- to their own.

BLITZER: Who does it help on the Republican side?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You may need a new panel. I don't know either.


BENNETT: I mean, I -- really. I...


BENNETT: I -- it's not clear to me. I know people say, well, it should probably help the moderate, because California is a more moderate state than New Hampshire.

But you have still got Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. Lord knows when they're going to be.

But let me say two things it does -- it does mean.

BLITZER: The theory being that, if California moves up, if Florida is at the end of January, these other traditional states...


BLITZER: ... like -- like Iowa and New Hampshire...


BLITZER: ... South Carolina, they will want to even move maybe into December.


You had Mel Martinez kind of squeezing Florida in, right, saying, if -- if California is going on the 5th, then we're going in January, right? So, then, this will drive the other states closer.

What does that mean? It means, for one, if Newt Gingrich or Fred Thompson are thinking of running for president, they better get in, because, you know, time is running.

Second thing is no more criticism of even the media here for, you know, driving things too early. This thing could be over -- could be over -- on February 5. So, the front-loading of these primaries is a big deal.

Is it 24 states that are thinking about...

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Something like that, yeah.

BENNETT: It's -- it's incredible. It...


BLITZER: More than half of all the registered...

BENNETT: It drives...

BLITZER: ... voters in the country.

BENNETT: Right. It drives everything forward.

BLITZER: You know, but we did hear from that one New Hampshire political operative, suggesting it could be over even before February 5.

BEGALA: Well, look, we're going to have the Iowa caucus next week.


BEGALA: And we will have New Hampshire on April Fools' Day this year.

It's become a -- a bit ridiculous. And it's hard. The parties are less powerful than they used to be. But, you know, I saw Mel Martinez, the chairman of the Republican Party, Governor Dean, from -- former governor of Vermont, the chairman of my party. You do wish that they could have a little more power here.

And I suspect both Governor Dean and Senator Martinez wish they did, too. I think they probably would schedule it in a more rational way.

BENNETT: I just worry that from February to November is a long time. You -- you kind of worry that some measure of diffidence, or lack of interest, sets in, you know, kind of political asthenia. And then what happens...


BENNETT: ... election?

BLITZER: At least -- at least you have two presidential conventions in between in the summer.

BENNETT: Yes, but what -- what are these front-runners, then anointed, going to do for seven or eight months? Not much, I will tell you.

BLITZER: All right.

BENNETT: They are not going to take a lot of chances. BLITZER: "TIME" magazine, in their new cover story that is out today -- and -- and it's a very dramatic picture of Ronald Reagan with that tear that they draw in, or whatever, coming out of...

BENNETT: I'm sure.

BLITZER: ... coming out of his eye.

They have some new poll numbers. Let's go through them and talk about it. In a head-to-head matchup, McCain vs. Hillary Clinton, 43- 44, that's obviously very, very tight. McCain vs. Obama ahead, Obama slightly ahead, 41-44. Giuliani vs. Clinton, 47 Giuliani, Clinton 43. Giuliani vs. Obama, a slight reversal, 43-44, all within the three- points margin of error.

But it does show an incredibly tight race, no matter what these matchups.

BEGALA: Yes. It also shows it's 21 months away.

I mean, "TIME" magazine should know better than that. I guess they're owned by the same corporation that pays me, but they ought to save their money, and not conduct dopey national polls 21 months before the election. We don't even have a national election for president. It's all about getting to 270, not getting to 50 percent of the vote. Go ask my friend Al Gore. If we had a national election, he would have been elected in 2000. But we have an Electoral College.

So, you only -- you should only -- rational people should only look at state-by-state polling, and not even that 21 months before an election.

BENNETT: Still, it's fun.


BENNETT: And it's what we do.

But -- but, look, what the Giuliani people are telling you -- telling people to look at is not just those numbers, which are all close for all the big -- big candidates, but to look at how the states go.

And what the Giuliani people are telling everybody is: We put every state in play.

And the interesting thing to me is what's going on with McCain. Where is the energy? You just had that -- that piece. Maybe he will get the charge up.

Now, I don't understand the guy who pins so much on the Iraq situation and the surge. There are some encouraging signs. He's got to be talking about that. This is his major arrow in the quiver.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there, guys. BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: We have got some news coming in.


BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in.

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Carol Costello is following a sad development for us.

Carol, update our viewers.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Really sad development, Wolf.

This is out of Brunswick, Georgia. Georgia authorities confirm to us they have found the body of 16-year-old (sic) Christopher Barrios. The little boy has been missing for a week. He disappeared from a mobile home. And the mobile home was located in some dense pine forest.

And police have been looking for his body for the past few days. And, yes, they did find it a short time ago.

Two men are under arrest, not charged with anything yet, but they told police, apparently, that they knew where the boy's body was, which is what led police to find it today.

We will have more later -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a sad story that is.

Carol, thank you very much.

BLITZER: Still to come: my entire interview with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Does he have a Senate seat on his mind? Does he have a White House, potentially, on his mind?

All that coming up -- my full interview with the governor coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But, up next, "The Cafferty File": Is it fair to tie funding for the war in Iraq to a deadline for pulling out the troops? Jack and your e-mail -- when we come back.


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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question is: Is it fair to tie funding for the war in Iraq to a deadline for pulling out the troops? Richard in Syracuse writes: "Yes. When a high school senior from the United States can complete Army basic training and advanced infantry training and have boots on the ground in Iraq in less than one-third the time it takes Iraqis to train a police officer, it's obvious the Iraqis will not step up and take responsibility for their own country. So, we should step back, train them, but get out of the line of fire."

Danny in Bluefield, West Virginia: "Jack, what the Democrats have done is take ownership of the war. And, when it goes bad, as it certainly will, the Republicans will now be able to blame them. The Democrats just got the Republicans off the hook. Boneheads."

Jerry in Alpharetta, Georgia: "It's absolutely unfair to create a nexus between politics and support of our troops who are in harm's way. If the leaders in Congress don't like the concept of having the president as the commander in chief, they should either move to change the Constitution or impeach the president. Don't use our military men and women as fodder for political cannons."

Charles in Lansing, Michigan: "Absolutely. As I recall, that is what the U.S. electorate overwhelmingly voted for last November. Actually, they should be coming home immediately."

Bob in Illinois: "Fair? We're caught in a civil war between Sunnis and Shia. We didn't sign up for that. Saddam is gone. There are no weapons of mass destruction. What is fair is doing whatever needs to be done to save American lives and treasure on a foreign policy disaster, so that we can get on with fighting the war on terror in Afghanistan."

And Andy writes from Pennsylvania: "I see Arnold is going to be on with Wolf today. I would like too see Arnold take on Jack, and terminate 'The Cafferty File.'"


CAFFERTY: Question -- if you didn't see your e-mail here, too bad. We -- we post them online, but I don't think we do it until later.

I'm confused.


BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty will be back shortly.