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The Situation Room

Examination of the Potential Threat to the Republican and Democratic Presidential Candidates from Independents.

Aired June 25, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, an Independent threat. Our brand new poll numbers just out showing that Michael Bloomberg will have a possible impact on the presidential race now that the New York mayor has ditched the Republican Party. We have these numbers for you coming up.
Also this hour, immigration reform on the brink. Opponents of the so-called grand bargain hunker down in their war rooms on the eve of the latest Senate showdown. I'll ask our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett, if this issue is anything but political poison for the GOP.

Plus, a Baghdad hotel that houses Westerners, bombed to shreds. We're going to tell you who was targeted and who may be to blame.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But let's begin this hour with some striking new proof that the 2008 presidential race is being defined not only by the candidates in the race, but by those on the sidelines. Our just released poll gauges the potential support for an Independent presidential race by the New York mayor and ex-Republican, Michael Bloomberg.

Let's turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

He's watching this story for us -- so how much support, political support for Michael Bloomberg, does it appear that there is out there -- Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, our latest poll has the answer. And here's a hint -- there's support.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (R), NEW YORK: ... elected office.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Michael Bloomberg insists he's not running for president.

BLOOMBERG: We even have two people from New York who are candidates for president of the United States. I'm not sure the state needs a third.

SCHNEIDER: One New Yorker, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is the national frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Undeclared candidate Fred Thompson is now tied with John McCain for second. Another New Yorker, Senator Hillary Clinton, is the Democrat's national frontrunner.

Pit the two frontrunners against each other and what do you get?

A very close match -- Clinton, 49; Giuliani, 48 percent.

Is there any room for Bloomberg?

The New York mayor does have a message.

BLOOMBERG: It's my perception that the government at all levels is becoming more partisan rather than less.

SCHNEIDER: Bloomberg used to be a Democrat. He was elected twice as a Republican. Now, he's just declared himself an Independent.

What does the public make of Bloomberg?

Forty percent of Americans have no opinion of him at all. Among those who do, the balance is mildly favorable. And it's about the same for Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Now that he's gotten a lot of attention, Bloomberg's support seems to be on the rise -- 17 percent in a three way contest against the two national frontrunners. Seventeen percent nearly matches what Ross Perot got the first time he ran in 1992. Even if he doesn't win, some people think Bloomberg could affect the outcome of the race.

SCOTT REED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: If he runs, there will be two liberals in the race versus one Republican. So unlike the Perot phenomenon, that really hurt Republicans, this has a chance to Democrats.

SCHNEIDER: That's not happening yet. Right now, Bloomberg would take votes about equally from Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. And the outcome would still be close.


SCHNEIDER: Bloomberg is not well known nationally. Now, if he were to run, he could spend a whole lot of money defining himself. Our poll shows a lot of voters would be open to a new choice -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So let's be precise. Assume he runs, Bill, but he comes in third, would he still hold the balance of power?

SCHNEIDER: Only if he were able to carry his state. The election is as close as it looks right now and if Bloomberg were to carry, say, his home state of New York, he might be able to hold the balance of power between the other two candidates. But a poll recently taken of New York State voters shows that if you have all three New Yorkers in the race -- Clinton, Giuliani and Bloomberg -- Bloomberg would not win the State of New York. He would, in fact, come in third right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Right now -- those are the key words.

Bill, thanks very much.

In other important news we're following right now, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. It deals with so-called issue ads that advocacy groups, corporations, unions often air.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that issue ads can air -- can air close to election time.

In another ruling, the court decided against a onetime high school student who argued that free speech -- his free speech, specifically -- the rights of his free speech were being violated. The student was suspended for showing a banner that read -- and I'm quoting now -- "Bong Hits For Jesus" at a school-sponsored event. The principal thought the message glorified drug use. We're going to have more on today's rulings at the Supreme Court rulings a little bit later this hour.

Let's turn now to Iraq and the suicide bomb attack in a very busy -- a major hotel right in central Baghdad. At least 12 people were killed, most of them Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders who were holding talks on Iraqi reconciliation.

CNN's Hala Gorani is in Baghdad -- Hala.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this suicide attack took place at the Mansour Hotel in downtown Baghdad, just a few hundred yards from the so-called Green Zone in the Iraqi capital. The Mansour houses Western organizations, the Chinese embassy. Some local M.P.s live there, as well, and spend the night when they are in Baghdad.

Now, it seems, though, that it was a tribal leader conference that was targeted. CNN has been able to confirm that seven tribal sheikhs were among those killed. Now, the reason for this may be that some of those attending the conference are those sheikhs that have decided to ally themselves with U.S. and Iraqi government forces against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province. If this is the case, and if Al Qaeda is, indeed, behind this attack, this could have been a motive for them to mount the suicide bombing.

Now, the suicide bomber was able to get through several layers of security and the questions today are how was this possible?

Was it simply a security lapse or somehow an inside job?

The other question is how will this affect combat operations west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, where some of the local tribal leaders are cooperating with American forces against Al Qaeda -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Hala Gorani, thanks very much.

Hala is in Baghdad for us.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York for us.

You know, I spoke earlier today with Michael Ware. He's back in Baghdad. He's going to be here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour. He went to that hotel earlier in the day. He's been in Iraq for four years. He says no matter how many times he goes and sees these horrific events, you know, his stomach is churning. It's -- he walked into that lobby. You can only imagine body parts and what an awful, awful situation.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and, you know, despite the great work he does for us, I mean, on the other hand, he keeps tempting fate by -- by continuing to spend his time there. I don't know if that's -- if that's a real good idea. But I'm delighted that he's there on our behalf.

In a related vein, Wolf, some stories are simply beyond comprehension. Here's one of those.

The Taliban recently recruited a 6-year-old Afghan boy to become a suicide bomber. This was according to NATO. Fortunately, this particular plot failed when the boy approached an Afghan soldier and asked for help in removing his explosive-laden vest. The boy had been instructed -- 6-years-old -- by the Taliban to walk up to an Afghan police or Army person and push the button, thus detonating the vest.

But the child was only six and he didn't understand the instructions. And instead he asked the soldier why he had the vest on.

In this case, the bomb was defused and the boy wasn't hurt. But the story provides insight into the mentality of the enemy we're fighting. The terrorists, in this case, the Taliban, have sunk to a new low and are now willing to blow up small children in the pursuit of their twisted goals.

What kind of religion sanctions that?

And what are the rules of military engagement when they're putting kids as young as six in the line of fire?

Here's the question -- how do you fight an enemy like the Taliban if they're willing to use 6-year-old children as suicide bombers?

E-mail or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, you think you've heard it all until you hear something like this.


BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Unbelievable.

BLITZER: A horrific story. Coming up, opponents of immigration reform waging war right now. We're going to have the latest on the political skirmishes and how they're dividing the GOP. I'll talk with our contributor, Bill Bennett. He's standing by live.

Plus, the mad dash for campaign cash.

Who's seeing green as the clock winds down in the second fundraising quarter for the presidential candidates?

And the mother of a slain pregnant woman is speaking out and it's getting very emotional. We'll have the latest on this very disturbing case in Ohio.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: The U.S. Senate is bracing for yet another showdown over immigration reform. A critical test vote is scheduled for tomorrow on the latest version of a comprehensive bill that has the blessings of the White House.

Our just released CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 30 percent of Americans favor the bill, 47 percent say they oppose it, but about two thirds of those who are against the bill say it provides too much help for illegal immigrants. About a third of those who say they're opposed to the bill say it doesn't help immigrants enough. Nineteen percent of those surveyed say they simply don't know enough about the measure to have an opinion.

Let's go to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- so, Dana, this is do or die for the backers of this comprehensive immigration bill, as early as tomorrow. This is a make or break week.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It sure is. And backers of this bill certainly know that. They're plotting strategy as we speak, Wolf.

They know that the highly motivated opposition to this immigration bill is targeting senators who will determine whether it will survive this week.


BASH (voice-over): Just across the Potomac River, the U.S. Capitol and the target of Roy Beck's grassroots campaign to block the Senate immigration bill.

ROY BECK, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NUMBERS USA: This is the nerve center for our members.

BASH: Call it virtually lobbying. From this small war room, Beck's groups, Numbers USA, keeps in constant contact with its 400,000 plus members, channeling anger into action with rapid fire e-mail alerts and an interactive Web site.

BECK: We tell them exactly who -- who is wavering, who is likely to vote no against amnesty, who we've got to move that right now is wanting to vote yes. We're trying to move these -- we're trying to move our people to make phone calls, send faxes, to get their opinion heard on the Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Lott's office?

BASH: The result?

A flood of calls and petitions to key Senate offices, bolstered by TV ads like this one, running against the Senate Republican leader.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is Senator Mitch McConnell selling out Kentucky in favor of illegal aliens?

He's joined with Ted Kennedy in strong arming senators to support amnesty for millions of illegals.


BASH: Tactics like this are working. Georgia's two Republican senators initially backed the immigration compromise. But after getting bombarded by opposition, both now plan to oppose a crucial vote to revive the bill.

But other leading Republicans under fire say the immigration system is in crisis and improvements in the bill outweigh its shortfalls.

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY WHIP: If we don't get it done in the Senate now, it will not be done in the Senate this year or next year, and not before sometime in 2009, when who knows who will be president?


BASH: And GOP sources tell CNN they do expect this Senate to clear the 60 vote hurdle to actually start debate on immigration tomorrow. But those sources also tell us it's going to be very close. And big picture, Wolf, nobody knows as of now whether or not immigration will pass. That will depend largely on whether or not some of the two dozen amendments or so that will be on the floor intended to change this bill actually succeed -- Wolf.


Thanks, Dana for that.

The Senate immigration reform bill has erected a new political border fence of sorts, and that fence is dividing the Republican Party big time.

Let's go to our contributor, Bill Bennett.

He's the former education secretary and now a fellow with the Claremont Institute here in Washington.

Bill, thanks for coming in.

The president of the United States is firm -- the country needs this right now.

Listen to what he said not that long ago.




GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You want to kill the bill, you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it. You can use it to frighten people or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all.


BLITZER: All right, you don't agree with the president?

BENNETT: I don't agree with the president. He's in good faith. He's consistent. He hasn't changed his view. But we very strongly disagree with the president.

BLITZER: How deeply divided is the GOP?

BENNETT: Well, it's -- it's deeply divided, but it's not evenly divided. It's deeply divided, I'd say about 70/30, maybe 80/20.

BLITZER: In terms of public opinion or actual legislators in the Senate...


BLITZER: ... and the House?

BENNETT: No. The legislators in the Senate are probably closer to 50/50, but I think maybe 60/40. But in terms of the base of the Republican Party, I would guess it's 80/20.

Do you know the RNC had to lay off all these phone operators who were calling to raise money because they were getting responses time after time after time we're not giving money to this party if it's going to do this bill, if it's going to do amnesty.

People are furious about the bill. They think it's wrong.

But I'll tell you what they're equally furious about. They're furious about the names they're being called, the stuff about Nativism and so on, and anti-Mexican. People are furious about this. And there's a sense of disappointment with the president.

This will mean big consequences for the Republican Party and for individuals in the Republican Party.

BLITZER: Here's what the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers said last week. He said: "Our review of economic research finds immigrants not only help fuel the nation's economic growth, but also have an overall positive affect of the income of native born workers."


BLITZER: Why are you reluctant to accept that?

BENNETT: This is highly disputed. It would be great to have a debate. It would be a good CNN debate to have Robert Rector at Heritage or some of the other people. He tried to engage the "Wall Street Journal." This was another interesting division -- Heritage Foundation versus the "Wall Street Journal." It gives you an example of the lines we're talking about.

Rector and other researchers are assuring people that it is very costly to have 12 or 14 million new citizens, particularly this way in.

But the offense the American people are taking -- or the people opposed -- are that it violates the rule of law. It's not fair to the people who have played by the rules. It's the sense of sovereignty is being violated and that this is amnesty. Whatever...


BENNETT: ... whatever the president says, people say right now, the punishment for an illegal alien is deportation. Once this bill becomes law and you get a Z Visa, you can not be deported.

BLITZER: What -- what irritates the president and other Republicans who support this measure is some of the rhetoric that's coming out from the opponents.

I'm going to play you a clip of what Pat Buchanan said yesterday, a former Republican presidential candidate.

Listen to Pat.


PATRICK BUCHANAN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think this is blanket amnesty for wholesale illegality. And I think it will result in another invasion of the United States that's even greater than this one. I think we're talking about the beginning and possibly the end of the United States if this bill goes through."


BLITZER: Now, you agree with him on that -- because the beginning and the end of the United States, if what the president of the United States supports or John McCain supports, what Ted Kennedy supports -- that will be the end of the United States?

BENNETT: I -- I would use different -- I would use different words. But as I said, the issue of sovereignty is real.

And what does it mean to be an American?

How do you get in?

What does it mean to become a citizen?

When you get people, as they do, calling my show and talking about how their parents came here, their grandparents came here -- these people ran across the border. They're going to getting amnesty for that. People do not think that is right and I agree with them.

I would put it a little differently from Pat.

But the name calling has been intense on the other side. I didn't hear any insult there of any particular person. We have heard that a lot, even from conservatives. We heard this from Lindsey Graham, who I think is going to be in serious trouble on this.

I think John McCain, whom you know I admire enormously, is going to lose his presidential bid on this issue -- on this issue. And the president is going to lose whatever support he has in the base.

It's a real -- this is the biggest one I've seen since George Bush came into office in terms of the base.

BLITZER: It's a make or break week, as I said, this week...

BENNETT: A big week.

BLITZER: ... in Washington.

BENNETT: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And beginning with that debate tomorrow on whether to limit the debate on the Senate floor.

Bill, thanks for coming in.

BENNETT: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, there are new developments in the death of a young pregnant woman in Ohio. We're going to tell you what's happening in this gut-wrenching case and we're going to also hear from the slain woman's distraught mother.

Also coming up, Michael Bloomberg's rise in out presidential poll.

Is it a blip or could the New York mayor have staying power if he becomes an Independent presidential candidate? J.C. Watts and Bill Press, they're standing by for our Strategy Session.


BLITZER: The question of if she's alive or dead has now been answered. Police are now trying to figure out what or who caused her death. There are new developments regarding that pregnant woman in Ohio, who had been missing but was found dead over the weekend. Two people are in custody in connection with the case.

Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello.

She's in Canton for us.

What's the latest -- Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, I grew up here in Canton, Ohio, spent all of my childhood, my teenage years, my college years. I'm telling you, this town has seen nothing like this.

About an hour-and-a-half ago, Bobby Cutts charged with two counts of murder and Myisha Ferrell charged with obstruction of justice, was taken into the Canton Municipal Courtroom in shackles.

And I'm telling you, there was a crowd of onlookers gawking at them, yelling at them.

Once inside the courtroom, Cutts stood by as charges were read against him. Also, bond was set at $5 million.

Jessie Davis' family was inside that courtroom. They stood and looked him in the eye the entire time.


QUESTION: Did you want Bobby to see you?

PATRICIA PORTER, JESSIE DAVIS' MOTHER: Absolutely, I wanted him to see me.

QUESTION: And did he look at you?

PORTER: Yes, he did.


PORTER: I believe my whole life has prepared me for this moment.


PORTER: And I'm not sitting down when I see Bobby Cutts.

QUESTION: Patty, what was going through your mind when he walked into the courtroom? PORTER: I can't really verbalize the things that were going through my mind. But I wanted to make sure that he knew I was there.


COSTELLO: And he definitely knew she was there, Wolf.

Now, as for what will happen next, well, the case could be sent to a Stark County grand jury, where they may indict both people. And, also, the case could be sent back here to municipal court, where they could decide whether felony charges are in order. And then it will be sent on to Stark County Court.

All of this should happen within 28 days.

BLITZER: All right, Carol.

I'm going to have you back here in the next hour from Canton.

We'll have some more on this really, really sad story.

Thanks, Carol, very much.

Up next, a new blow to Senator John McCain delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court on one of his signature issues -- campaign finance reform. We're going to examine the ruling and the impact on McCain's run for the White House.

Plus, a frantic new sprint in the presidential money race.

Are previous winners likely to come out on top again?

Stay with us.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Happening now, who's running the White House?

New questions about Vice President Dick Cheney's clout after his controversial claim that his office is not -- repeat not -- in the executive branch.

Also, she was EPA administrator on 9/11. Now Christine Todd Whitman is being grilled by lawmakers about some of her actions and words just after the tragedy.

Why might it be a potential problem for Rudy Giuliani?

And are they ready to secure their country?

There are fresh comments about the fighting ability of Iraqi troops.

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

The Supreme Court slaps back part of the campaign finance reform law. More now on our one of our top stories -- a major court decision on a law that bears John McCain's name.

Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.


Tell our viewers about this court decision today -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, it's a first. The Supreme Court has narrowed the reach of federal campaign finance law.


CROWLEY (voice-over): In a nutshell, the Supreme Court ruling will allow outside groups -- read that special interests -- to run ads with fewer restrictions.

EVAN TRACEY, TNS MEDIA INTELLIGENCE-CMAG: So when you have very, you know, groups with very deep pockets, like labor unions, like corporations, like interest groups now able to run advertisements, really, with timing not being a factor, with language not being a factor.

CROWLEY: Up until now, within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary, outside groups were banned from using unrestricted funds to air ads which referred to candidates by name.

So a Wisconsin group, which brought the case to the Supreme Court, was not allowed to air this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Contact Senators Feingold and Cole and tell them to oppose the filibuster.


CROWLEY: Ruling in favor of the group, the high court said the provision in the McCain-Feingold law was unduly restrictive and that the ad was an issue ad, not an election ad covered by campaign finance law.

"We give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship," said Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority.

Now, under the Supreme Court ruling, the late campaign ads may mention a candidate's name, but may not explicitly call for his election or defeat. Funds for these issue ads are not covered by campaign finance law.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Mr. President, it's a good day for the first amendment.

CROWLEY: This is the last thing John McCain's struggling campaign needed -- a Supreme Court rebuke of a law which both bears his name and has caused him trouble with conservatives who view it as an infringement on free speech.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Hey, how you doing, guys?

CROWLEY: In a written statement, McCain said: "It's regrettable that a split Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception by which some corporate and labor expenditures can be used to target a federal candidate in the days and weeks before an election."

Mitt Romney, who has used McCain's authorship of campaign reform as a wedge to drive between McCain and conservatives, couldn't resist a jab, writing: "Score one for free speech. McCain-Feingold was a poorly crafted bill."


CROWLEY: In McCain's statement, he stuck to the bright side, emphasizing that the court did not strike down the ban on federal office holders from soliciting unregulated funds for their parties to then spend on their campaigns -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Candy, tell us why Mitt Romney was talking about his Mormon faith over the weekend.

CROWLEY: Well, you know, for the third time, another candidate, or another campaign, has been caught spreading at least e-mails and statements about Mormonism.

Mitt Romney was in Salt Lake City, where he said this is getting to be too often. As you know, this may be a problem for him. We see polls that between 20 percent and 30 percent of people say it would be a problem for them to pull the lever for a Mormon.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much.

Romney's part of a mad dash for campaign cash. The end of this month brings the end of the second quarter, so, the candidates are crisscrossing the country, trying to raise as much money as possible, before the clock runs out Saturday at midnight.

Our Mary Snow's watching this scramble for big bucks.

Mary, who appears to be winning the crucial campaign race for donors' dollars?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, when you take a look at the Republican side, Mitt Romney was the big winner in the first quarter. He wants to stay number one. Today, he held a major fund- raising event at an arena in Boston.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are a lot of people making big contributions.

SNOW (voice-over): And, in the first quarter, Mitt Romney grabbed a lot of those people. The former Massachusetts governor raked in over $20 million in campaign cash, easily topping rivals Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. So, today, Romney announced he's once again contributing to his own campaign.

ROMNEY: It would be nice to have to loan or contribute to your own campaign. You're going to have to do what's necessary.

SNOW: And, when you're worth at least $190 million, you can reach into your own pocket. Giuliani raked in nearly $15 million in the first quarter. That's not chump change, and the former New York City mayor hopes to repeat his first-quarter performance.

But all eyes will be on John McCain, who came in third in the first quarter. The senator from Arizona blamed himself for the poor fund-raising performance. Earlier this month, McCain was optimistic.

MCCAIN: We're doing better in fund-raising this period, and we will be reporting some improvement.

SNOW: But, last week, he admitted to "The New York Times" that fund-raising has "been very tough." He added that, "We weren't going to win this campaign on money anyway."

Among Democrats, it's a battle for big bucks between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton raised $26 million in the first quarter. Obama kept pace with her, giving his campaign a burst of momentum. Each are expected to post big numbers this quarter as well. John Edwards was a distant third last quarter. He doesn't expect to match the $14 million he raked in last time around.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's optimistic about his cash and hopes to top Edwards.


SNOW: So, why does all this money matter? Well, other than the polls, campaign cash is the major indicator for how well candidates are performing in the year before the voters start voting -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Mary, for that.

Nowhere is the mad dash for presidential fund-raising more apparent than on the Internet. Campaigns are finding clever ways to make that crucial last-minute pitch.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

What are you seeing on the candidates' Web sites, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, well, last time around, the 2004 presidential election saw Democrat Howard Dean tracking donations on his Web site through these graphics of baseball bats. Well, this time around, the 2008 candidates have their own interpretations. For John McCain, his e-campaign goal there is tracked. They are following the money on an aircraft carrier. For Mike Huckabee, on his Web site, there's a barber's pole there. And, for John Edwards, on his Web site, they're watching the money go up towards this bell.

Now, in the first quarter, we saw that online fund-raising was important, bringing in big bucks for some candidates. Now they're trying to maintain that momentum, particularly Democrats. Barack Obama was leading the pack, in terms of first-quarter donations. He's been soliciting donations, trying to win dinner with Barack.

For Hillary Clinton, all the people that watched her hugely popular online video, the spoof of "The Sopranos," at the end of it, they were all taken to this contribute button and -- which referred to the FEC deadline.

And, in terms of Republicans, it was Mitt Romney who did well on his Web site. You now see him appearing at his Web site directly asking for money.


ROMNEY: Just click the contribution icon above my head. And thanks for visiting. I appreciate your help.


TATTON: Wolf, just five days to go.

BLITZER: Thanks for that. We will watch it every step of the way.

Abbi Tatton, Candy Crowley, Mary Snow, they are all part of the best political team on television. And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out the Political Ticker. Go to

And mark this down on your presidential campaign calendar. CNN will bring you the final Republican presidential debate before one of the biggest days of the primary season, Super Tuesday, or, more accurately, as it's called, Super Duper Tuesday.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation announced today, it will host that debate on Wednesday, January 30, 2008, in California. CNN, "The Los Angeles Times" and are all partners in the forum. The former first lady Nancy Reagan is extending invitations to the leading GOP candidates in the race.

Coming up: a new air-and-ground assault agents the wildfire blazing near Lake Tahoe. We're going to take you to the fire zone, live.

And you may remember the case of the man who sued his dry cleaner for $54 million for allegedly losing his pants. The verdict is in. We're going to tell you who won.

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


BLITZER: In California right now, fire crews are in the midst of a new air-and-ground assault on a wildfire raging south of Lake Tahoe. More than 2,000 acres are charred. Dozens of homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez is live in the fire zone.

Thelma, are firefighters making some progress in battling these blazes?

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are. And that's mainly, in part, because of the fact that the winds have died down.

Yesterday, we had wind gusts of about 35 miles an hour. That, of course, spread this fire throughout the community. We are right now standing in the town of Meyers, which is about five miles south of Lake Tahoe. You can take a look at this home right behind me.

This is a scene, Wolf, that we have seen over and over again as we have driven through this area. You can see that the cars are burned out here. You can take a look at this family's kitchen, what's left of it, a refrigerator, a stove, a hot water heater.

Then, as we pan over, you can see this silhouette of a chimney. It's this way throughout the community of Meyers. A total of 240 homes and buildings were destroyed in this fire; 2,500 acres were charred. It is incredible to see so much destruction. And, yet, the one good bit of news is that there have been no injuries reported -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know that this is not all that unusual, except I take it, in this area, Thelma, it's about as bad as people -- locals can remember?

GUTIERREZ: Yes, absolutely.

In fact, one of the fire chiefs said that this is the most destructive thing that has happened to this area in about 100 years. Possibly, he says, in forever. You take a look throughout the area. There are homes, Wolf, that we see burned to the ground, vehicles completely charred.

Now, they were hoping to launch this aggressive air assault today. But the problem is that you have this inversion layer, and it socked in all of the smoke into this valley. And, so, because it's very steep and rugged in this area, it's just far too risky to put pilots up in the air. And, so, those flights have been grounded, at least at last we heard from the fire chief out here.

BLITZER: Thelma Gutierrez on the scene for us -- Thelma, thanks. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been close to 45,000 wildfires in the U.S. since the 1st of this year alone. They have burned more than 1.8 million acres. Among California's 20 most destructive structure fires on record, the worst was San Diego County's so-called Cedar Fire, seen here back in October of 2003. Took out almost 5,000 buildings. It also burned more than 273,000 acres and killed 15 people.

Carol Costello is on assignment in Canton, Ohio. You saw her earlier.

She's coming back into a little while, but let's check in with Betty Nguyen. She's monitoring some other stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Betty, what do you have?


We do have some new developments in a story that we have been following. It involves the judge in Washington, remember him, who sued his dry cleaners for $54 million for allegedly losing his pants. Well, today, a judge dismissed the case. The judge also awarded court costs to the dry cleaners. But the defendants are now hoping to have their attorney's fees paid by the plaintiff.

Of course, we are going to have much more on this story next hour.

Also, for many, home sweet home is more like home sweet poorer. Some home sales slumped to a four-year low since last month. And the home prices fell from the previous year for the 10th straight month. And that is according to the National Association of Realtors.

Now, the group also says the number of homes waiting to be sold rose 5 percent from April.

Now, listen to this. A family that had just gotten together for a reunion will now have to gather for a funeral. In Kentucky, one person is dead and dozens hurt after a bus crash. And, apparently, the bus driver fell asleep at the wheel. He survived, with critical injuries. But the impact was so violent, it threw a 71-year-old woman out of the bus.

Officials say the passengers were going home to Alabama from a reunion in Buffalo, New York. So sad.

Well, it does appear more of you are actually in a giving mood. Americans set a new record in money donated to charities last year, giving nearly $300 billion. That's according to an annual report from the Giving USA Foundation. Most of those billions went to religious organizations, while the second largest chunk of that sum went to educational gifts, to libraries, colleges, and universities.

And I know you are a very giving man, Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: I try, like all of us.


BLITZER: Thanks. We can all do better, though. And I encourage everyone out there to give, because a lot of needy people out there.


NGUYEN: Makes a difference.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

NGUYEN: Mm-hmm.

BLITZER: Up next: the presidential candidate on the run and possibly threatened by an independent.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have got commitments that we are going to fulfill, that we're going to roll up our sleeves and work hard to create the kind of America that we can all be proud of.


BLITZER: If New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joins the race for the White House, how might that affect Senator Barack Obama and other contenders? We're watching this story.

J.C. Watts and Bill Press, they are standing by live. We're going to take a close look at some new poll numbers. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And later: a new White House vote of confidence for the vice president, Dick Cheney. He's still under fire for claiming he's not part of the executive branch of the government.

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


BLITZER: He's a onetime Democrat who won office as a Republican, but is now an independent.

So, if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did run for president, our fresh poll numbers now show he might hurt; he might help. We're watching this very closely.

Let's go to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us today, radio talk show host Bill Press and CNN political analyst J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

Here's what some of these numbers show -- and let's talk about it -- in our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. If there were a contest involving Clinton on the Democratic side, Giuliani on the Republican side, Bloomberg as an independent, look at this, 41 percent for Clinton, 38 percent for Giuliani, 17 percent for Michael Bloomberg, at least right now.

Now, let's take out Michael Bloomberg -- Clinton vs. Giuliani, 49 percent Clinton, 48 Giuliani. It's a very, very close race.

If he's in that race, Bill Press, she actually has an easier time beating Giuliani than if he's not in the race.

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: You know what this shows most of all, Wolf, I think, analyzing these numbers? That Bloomberg is a force of nature. You know, I think he's like a tropical storm off the coast. You don't know whether it's going to hit, and you don't know when or where it's going to hit, if it does.

But you know, if it does, it's going to do a lot of damage. I think it's going to hurt the Democrats, end up hurting Democrats more than Republicans. We don't see that here, but eventually, because he's -- his ideas are more attuned with the Democrats. But, clearly, he is a force to be reckoned with by both Republicans and Democrats.

BLITZER: And let's take a look. That was a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Giuliani.

Let's say it's McCain and Obama, J.C. If you take a look at these numbers, Obama gets 40 percent, McCain 34, Bloomberg 21 percent in that hypothetical three-way contest. If it's a two-way contest, Obama narrowly beats McCain, 48-44 percent. Actually, once again, slightly, Bloomberg winds up helping the Democrats, taking -- taking votes away from Republicans.

J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think those numbers show, concerning John McCain, that the immigration issue, the war still pulling his numbers down.

But I think Bloomberg does hurt Republicans and Democrats both evenly, because I think there's kind of a funk, Wolf, out there in the country with Republicans and Democrats. I don't think that Michael Bloomberg can get to that, you know, 30 percent mark, which is what it would take for him to impact the race to win it.

But I do think that he -- he will be a serious player, and, at this point, I don't know who he hurts the most.


BLITZER: Guys, look behind you. There's a picture from yesterday's gay pride parade in New York City. And there is the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, clearly showing solidarity with this parade, the gay pride parade in New York.

J.C., how does that play, you think, out there in the country, when the mayor of New York, who is thinking of running for president as an independent, shows up for this kind of a parade? WATTS: Well, I don't think that -- I don't think that those type of things helps him as an independent. And, at the end of the day, I think you have got 15 percent on either side that would say, those issues won't matter to us. You know, we see those as push-button issues, that Republicans and Democrats both use them. At the end of the day, they're not going to matter to us.

I think that's the crowd, that's the demographic that Michael Bloomberg is trying to get, and he will do well with that demographic.

BLITZER: Yesterday -- yesterday, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of John Edwards, said she supports gay marriage. She said: "I don't know why anybody else's marriage has anything to do with me. I'm completely comfortable with gay marriage."

Her husband isn't yet completely comfortable with gay marriage. But how does this play out, you think, on the Democratic side of the equation?

PRESS: First of all, let's remember what the goalpost is here. The goalpost is to win the Democratic nomination.

I think, from a strategic point of view, this was a very wise move, whether it was spontaneous or calculated on the part...


BLITZER: By Elizabeth Edwards?

PRESS: On the part of Elizabeth Edwards.

Number one, for the base, the Democratic base that they have got to appeal to, this is a big issue, an important issue, Wolf.

And, number two, I think there's a hidden thing here, which -- message, which is, she's a very strong woman, and she's showing she's a very strong woman. And I think the not-so-subtle message is that Hillary Clinton isn't the only strong woman among the Democrats. And you have got, like, a twofer, with John Edwards strong on the war and Elizabeth Edwards out there on gay marriage.

BLITZER: On the overall horse race, look at these numbers. I will put them up. Registered Republicans' choice nominee, without Newt Gingrich in the race -- he's not a candidate, at least not now -- Giuliani still on top, 31 percent, Fred Thompson, who is about to make it official, 21 percent, John McCain 9, Romney 11, Mike Huckabee down at 2 percent.

What do you think about that, J.C.?

WATTS: Well, I'm a little surprised that Huckabee is at 2 percent. I thought maybe Mike would have been, at this time, 5, 6 percent -- still hovering down there as a nonfactor, for the most part -- Thompson, McCain, pretty much a dead heat, Giuliani still the front-runner. But, again, I have said all along, I think these numbers, I think they're -- they're not solid. They're not in stone. Fred Thompson will get in. Obviously, he will be picked on. And they will -- you know, Republicans and Democrats both have started to beat him up. Those numbers will fall.

BLITZER: But you think he hurts McCain more than he hurts Giuliani?

WATTS: I think -- I think at this time, because I think many Republicans, about 65, 70 percent of Republicans are saying, anybody but McCain. Now, I -- I hate that, but that's -- that's that's the reality...


BLITZER: Let's look on the Democratic side.

PRESS: Sure.

BLITZER: Registered Democrats, Clinton, Senator Clinton, still ahead, 43 percent, Obama 25 percent, Edwards 17 percent, Bill Richardson down at 5 percent, Joe Biden, 3 percent.

She's got staying power, at least in all these polls.

PRESS: I'm impressed with every one of these polls, that Hillary Clinton is 12, 13, sometimes 15 points ahead, consistently ahead, of Barack Obama. But I have to say, also, Wolf, at this point, I think, for Barack Obama, that's a good position to be in. A year out, to be in second place as almost a freshman -- as a freshman senator, behind Hillary Clinton, that's -- that's -- that's a good place to be.

WATTS: Well...

PRESS: John Edwards stuck in third.

WATTS: It could be a good place to be, if it's not a Hillary Clinton.

I think she has to stumble. I think she's surrounded by good enough people that -- and she's savvy enough, that he's got to rely on her to make some strategic mistake. So -- now, if she does, that's good for him.

PRESS: Yes. And...


WATTS: But I would hate to be betting on that.

PRESS: No, and building on that, I think he's going to have to make a move at some point.

BLITZER: All right.

PRESS: But, as much as we want him to, he doesn't have to make it in June 2007.

WATTS: Right.

BLITZER: It's still early.

PRESS: Exactly.


BLITZER: Bill Press, J.C. Watts, guys, thanks for coming in.

PRESS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still to come: the war on terror and the Taliban's recruitment -- get this -- of a 6-year-old suicide bomber -- Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail.

Plus, Rudy Giuliani takes a hit from a fellow Republican, former EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman. She's cutting to the heart of his campaign platform, his performance on 9/11.

And we will read between the lines of today's U.S. Supreme Court rulings and consider whether the Roberts court is living up to its more conservative billing.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Fred Thompson tops today's "Political Radar." The former senator from Tennessee is not even officially a presidential candidate yet, but he's on top in a new poll. Thompson is in first place in a Mason-Dixon survey of Nevada Republicans, at 25 percent. Mitt Romney's in second place, closely followed by Rudy Giuliani. As we reported earlier, Thompson comes in second in CNN's new national poll.

Barack Obama is jumping into the campaign ad wars. The senator from Illinois and Democratic presidential candidate is going up with his first TV commercials. The ads, which start running tomorrow in Iowa, will highlight his career.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our Political Ticker at

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty in New York for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is, how do you fight an enemy like the Taliban, if they are willing to use 6- year-old children as suicide bombers?

We got this from Stanley, who is a retired sergeant in Grove, Oklahoma: "In Vietnam, the Vietcong would tie a grenade around the neck of a toddler, pull the pin, and let him walk into a group of Americans to kill them and, of course, the child. Do you shoot the toddler, or let him blow up himself and the others? You go ahead and choose. Now you know what hell war is."

Abdul in Maryland writes: "I'm an American-born Muslim. I learned about the religion. I have practiced the religion my whole life. Rules of war are against using children, women, even suicide bombing innocent civilians. They need to know they might win a battle here using innocent children, killing innocent people who aren't involved, but they will not win the war. I'm ashamed that the world calls them Muslims, when, in fact, they don't know their religion and should be called cowards. Please refer to them as cowards, not Muslims."

Barbi in Florida writes: "By empowering the families of these children to keep them safe at home. When a whole culture of people cannot feed their families or cannot provide a viable future that they see as a better possibility than some indoctrinated sense of pious duty to a god who would murder their 6-year-old, then therein lies the problem."

Ray in Walnut Creek, California: "Ever since 9/11, we have been told Islam is a peaceful religion. But, when the religion as a whole will not stand up to the violent elements, how can they be called peaceful?"

Ron in San Diego: "Jack, you defend yourself. They teach their kids to hate us. You do all you can to preserve the life of the child, without giving up your own. Sometimes, that's not possible."

And Robert in Hyannis, Massachusetts: "The Israelis have been fighting Arab terrorists for decades, and their great leader Golda Meir said -- quote -- 'Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.' Nothing has changed for the Muslims, except they hate the United States as much as Israel now" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, what a horrific story. Thanks very much.

Jack Cafferty, he will be back shortly.