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The Situation Room

President Bush Under Fire Over Iran; Interview With Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton

Aired December 04, 2007 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: The president's credibility on Iran, it's under fire. His own intelligence agencies downgrading Tehran's nuclear threat. So, why is Mr. Bush refusing to budge? We're watching the story.

Democrats are pouncing on the president over Iran and ganging up on Hillary Clinton to boot. Is there more evidence that Iran is becoming the new Iraq in the '08 race?

And Republican Mike Huckabee under fresh attack in Iowa. His rival Mitt Romney says Huckabee's backers may be doing something illegal. Our roundtable discussion, that's coming up this hour as well.

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

Well, we begin with our top story, President Bush insisting today that Iran was, is and will be dangerous. He's standing firm in his warnings about Iran's nuclear threat, despite a startling about-face by his own intelligence experts. They now report Iran actually stopped developing a nuclear bomb four years ago.

Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is watching the story for us.

The president held a news conference and was really pressed on this subject.

Ed, update our viewers on what happened.


It really all boils down to questions of credibility, but Mr. Bush made clear, he's not backing down.


HENRY (voice over): Classic President Bush. Confronted with new facts on Iran, he insisted the national intelligence estimate changes nothing.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed.

HENRY: But the intelligence has changed, with the president's own administration now declaring Iran suspended its nuclear weapons four years ago. Mr. Bush called that a great discovery but warned Iran could restart the program at any time.

BUSH: Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

HENRY: The president was hit with a barrage of questions about how U.S. credibility was damaged by hyped intelligence before the war in Iraq and whether he made the same mistake with Iran in October.

BUSH: If you're interested in avoiding World War III...

HENRY: Mr. Bush insisted he made that comment before he learned of the new report, though he acknowledged his director of national intelligence gave him an inkling something was up last summer.

BUSH: I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was John -- Mike McConnell came in and said we have some new information. He didn't tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.

HENRY: But Senator Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, said he refuses to believe the president got tipped off in August and didn't follow up until last week. If that's true, Biden told reporters, He's one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history.


HENRY: Now, White House officials dismiss that as presidential posturing by Biden, but there are now senators in both parties raising sharp questions about why the intelligence community did not tip them off sooner. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying he believed Iran had a thirst for nuclear weapons and he wished someone had told him, time out, there's some new intelligence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Ed Henry, at the White House.

Let's get some quick facts now on the national intelligence estimate, the source of that new information about Iran's nuclear weapons program, or lack there of, shall we say.

It's produced by the National Intelligence Council formed back in the 1970s to serve as a bridge between the various intelligence communities and the officials who make policy. Estimates are usually requested by policy-makers to examine national security threats and vulnerabilities now and in the future. The national intelligence council made changes to the estimate writing system after a 2002 NIE report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That report was later found to be wrong.

The Democratic presidential candidates are seizing on the news that Iran stopped development of a nuclear bomb four years ago, and they're pouncing on President Bush's claim that the report doesn't necessarily change anything.

Let's get some more now on the Democrats. They debated today in Iowa and how they're also turning against Hillary Clinton on this issue.

We will turn to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

How could this new intelligence report, Bill, affect the presidential campaign?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it changes the debate from war and peace to competence and credibility.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): In October, President Bush talked about a nuclear Iran causing World War III. New intelligence makes the threat look far less imminent.

BUSH: I view this report as a -- as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it.

SCHNEIDER: Americans may have been alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but they're even more alarmed by the prospect of war with Iran. Last month, 70 percent of Americans opposed U.S. military action against Iran. Democratic voters were nearly unanimous in their opposition. Iran had already become a flash point in the Democratic campaign.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I and 75 other members of the Senate voted to give the president authority in a non-binding resolution to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its leadership as a terrorist organization.

SCHNEIDER: That vote drew vigorous criticism from her opponents.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't believe you can say I will stand up to Bush on invading Iran and then vote with him when the vote comes.

SCHNEIDER: The Clinton campaign may be relieved that military action, which would have inflamed Democrats, now seems less likely. But her opponents are keeping up the pressure.

It's easy to say, "Fool me once, shame on George Bush," but when she's been fooled twice, shame on her, Chris Dodd said.

Republican voters favor military action against Iran, which puts them way out of sync with the rest of the country. It also puts pressure on Republican candidates to sound hawkish, nervously hawkish.

JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran? Bomb, bomb, bomb -- anyway... SCHNEIDER: Now Republican candidates have to deal with the issue, did the Bush administration knowingly disregard or misrepresent the intelligence about Iran?


SCHNEIDER: Iran now becomes a very different issue, not the threat of war, but the question of mistrust -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Bill Schneider, reporting for us.

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

We are going to talk about this new NIE a little bit in our roundtable later this hour. So, hold your fire right now, because I know you have some thoughts on it. But tell us what's on your mind right now.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm one of the best ones on this program that always follows your instructions.

BLITZER: You are. You're very good.

CAFFERTY: As you get ready to charge your holiday purchases on your credit card, consider this. Americans have more than $900 billion in credit card debt. That's about 2,200 bucks for every household in the country. Perhaps that's why Congress is stepping up its scrutiny of the credit card industry.

Some lawmakers are criticizing the practice of raising customers' interest rates when their credit scores decline, even if the people are making their payments on time. Industry critics say it's yet another of abusive and confusing practices that can push consumers deeper and deeper into debt.

A Senate subcommittee held hearings today looking into how credit card companies raise these rates to as high as 30 percent, oftentimes giving consumers little notice about the higher charges. Credit card executives deflected the criticisms, saying, well, a credit score is only one of several factors that determines whether an increase in a customer's interest rate is appropriate.

Thirty percent? According to Congress, five big financial companies issue about 80 percent of all the U.S. credit cards. Three of these have recently said they will discontinue this practice of unannounced interest rate hikes.

But Senator Carl Levin, who heads up that subcommittee, says legislation may be needed to get the other companies to agree to do the same.

So, here's the question. If Americans have $900 billion in credit card debt, should more be done by the government to regulate the industry? E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf. BLITZER: Jack, stand by for the roundtable. That's coming up this hour.

Lou Dobbs coming up at the top of the hour, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a former member of the Bush administration suggests all Americans should be worried.


JOHN BOLTON, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: The intelligence community is like generals fighting the last war. They got Iraq wrong and they're overcompensating by understating the potential threat from Iran.


BLITZER: The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., does he think the new report on Iran's nuclear activities was released for political purposes?

Some people trying to help Republican Mike Huckabee win the White House could be hurting him. It involves some political tricks that some people suggest could be illegal.

And we're just getting word that the Romney campaign has done something regarding those illegal immigrants who worked on his home lawn.

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


BLITZER: President Bush is refusing today to downgrade his view of the Iranian nuclear threat. He says even if Iran actually stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago, it still could start it up once again.

But will that newly declassified information sway others with a get-tough approach toward Iran?


BLITZER: I'm joined now by the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. He's the author of the new book Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back.

BOLTON: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: Well, does it change your view about the threat coming in from Iran?

BOLTON: No. I think in the first place there is a artificial distinction in this estimate between so-called civil activities and military activities.

The estimate itself says Iran continues its uranium enrichment program. And what that means is Iran is building up an inventory of at least low-enriched uranium, that it's at Iran's discretion when to convert that fissile material into a nuclear weapon.

So I think there are a lot of questions about this estimate, which is only an analyst's judgment. And I don't think I would change my view of the threat that Iran poses.

BLITZER: But they specifically say that back in 2003, they have only recently confirmed and learned -- this is the 16 agencies involved in the U.S. intelligence community -- that back four years ago, the Iranians flatly suspended any nuclear weapons program that they clandestinely had earlier. That's new information, and it clearly would indicate that the president and all of his top advisers who were so worried about Iran's nuclear threat were wrong.

And I assume that includes you, as well?

BOLTON: Right. Well, that's one reason I'm suspicious about the conclusion here, that this took four years to find out.

And by the way, two agencies dissent from that conclusion. And even what was published says that the NIE itself only has moderate confidence that the suspension in 2003 continues today and that there are gaps in our intelligence. I think there's a real risk here of over-judging what the intelligence community found and that there is a real risk of disinformation on the part of Iran.

BLITZER: So let me just -- let me -- this is a significant point that you're raising. You're saying that this new NIE, the one that was just issued, 2007, is potentially wrong? Is that what you're saying? And that it was released for, what, political purposes?

BOLTON: Well, I think it's potentially wrong. But I would also say many of the people who wrote this are former State Department employees who, during their career at the State Department, never gave much attention to the threat of the Iranian program. Now they are writing as members of the intelligence community, the same opinions that they have had four and five years ago.

BLITZER: President Bush says he has confidence in this new NIE, and he says they revamped the intelligence community after the blunders involving weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He says there's a whole new community out there and he has total confidence in what the national intelligence director is doing.

BOLTON: Well, I have to say I don't. I think there's a very real risk here that the intelligence community is like generals fighting the last war. They got Iraq wrong and they're overcompensating by understating the potential threat from Iran.

I really think this is something the House and Senate intelligence committees need to get into in a very big way to probe as they can do behind closed doors how this estimate was put together. There is another issue here.

The only thing that has been made public are the general conclusions, two pages, not the 140 or 150 pages underlying it. Obviously, that information is very sensitive, but I would like to know what the decision was to allow the headlines to get out without the underlying facts for people to evaluate.

BLITZER: The president said he authorized the release of this NIE this summer and there will be hearings on the Hill.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the director general of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and he basically said then what the NIE says now, and I want to play this clip for you. I played it for you in the past.

Listen to what Dr. ElBaradei said.


BLITZER: Do you believe there is a clandestine, secret nuclear weapons program right now under way in Iraq?

DR. MOHAMED ELBARADEI, IAEA DIRECTOR-GENERAL: We haven't seen any concrete evidence to that effect, Wolf. We haven't seen any information that there is a parallel, ongoing, active nuclear weapons program.


BLITZER: The last time I played that clip for you a few weeks ago, you said he was an apologist for Iran.

Now, you want to revise or amend that comment? Because he now seems to be pretty much in line with the U.S. government's intelligence community.

BOLTON: Well, I don't want to revise it, and he's not in line, because the NIE itself says they did -- Iran did have a military program, at least until 2003, which ElBaradei still disagrees with and which the Iranians continue to deny. That's one of the reasons Iranian credibility is so much in question and why the prospect of disinformation I think is very real here.


BLITZER: The former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton speaking with me earlier.

Their campaigns said the mud would fly, and they're right. At a Democratic presidential debate today, one argument got so heated, that one candidate accused another of going way too far.

And a new embarrassment for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats: a former fund-raiser now indicted in a case that sent shockwaves through Democratic campaigns.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol. She's monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, back-to-back storms left the Pacific Northwest a soggy mess and flooded entire communities. National Guard troops used inflatable rafts to evacuate residents from one swamped Oregon down.

Heavy rains and gusty winds are blamed for at least five deaths in Oregon and Washington State. Tens of thousands of people are now without electricity. The governors of both states have issued emergency declarations.

A one-time big-money fund-raiser Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama now stands indicted. Norman Hsu faces 15 counts of fraud and violating campaign finance laws. The indictment by a federal grand jury in New York was unsealed today. Hsu is accused of swindling at least $20 million from investors in a campaign fund- raising scheme. The Clinton and Obama campaigns and others have returned Hsu's donations or given them to charity.

And, in Florida, a Miami-Dade grand jury has indicted four men in the shooting death of Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor. They're charged with first-degree felony murder and armed burglary. Defense attorneys say three of the suspects are extremely distraught and are being kept on suicide watch. A judge has ordered them held without bail. Taylor was killed in what police believed was a botched burglary at his home.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol, thanks very much.

Mitt Romney staying rather tight-lipped about his big speech on religion. That is coming up Thursday.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't want to give the speech now. I want to give the speech Thursday. So, you will have to wait.


ROMNEY: Yes, I did. I wrote it last Thursday.


BLITZER: Gloria Borger, she went one-on-one with Mitt Romney earlier today. She's standing by with Jack Cafferty and Jeff Toobin to consider what Romney needs to say. Also, the best political team on television takes on the Democrats' one-two punch on Iran. Who will feel the new intelligence gaff more? Would it be President Bush or Hillary Clinton?

And, later, you never know what the president might say at a news conference, but you can bet one thing is for sure. CNN's Jeanne Moos will find some humor in it -- all that and a lot more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Democratic presidential candidates face off in Iowa. We are going to tell you about their high-stakes debate just four weeks before the country's first caucuses.

Also, the stunning intelligence mistake on Iran's nuclear weapons program. What will the political fallout be and who's most likely to suffer?

Plus, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is preparing for a speech that could make or break his campaign. He talks about it with CNN. We will talk about it in our roundtable with the best political team on television.

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

Hillary Clinton says she's the target of outlandish political charges and that attacks against her are going way too far -- her words. Those are just some of her words today in a Democratic presidential debate in Iowa. In it, Senator Clinton's rivals blasted her for a key vote regarding Iran, but they also went after President Bush, accusing the president of not being -- quote -- "trustworthy."

Let's go to Suzanne Malveaux. She's joining us from Des Moines right now.

Things are really getting pretty heated out there on the campaign trail, Suzanne.


I mean, this was really a unique debate, no cameras allowed. This was a radio debate. So, you really had to listen carefully, closely to those one-liners, those pithy statements that punched through the two-hour debate. These were topics that were discussed, immigration, China, but the one that created all those fireworks, that was Iran.



MALVEAUX (voice-over): The bombshell over Iran dominated the Democratic debate, each candidate taking a swipe at President Bush for maintaining his aggressive posture against Iran, even after an intelligence report revealed Iran has abandoned its nuclear ambitions in 2003.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I still feel strongly that Iran is in danger.

MALVEAUX: It was just the red meat the Democrats were craving to set themselves apart from the current administration.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They should have stopped the saber-rattling, should have never started it.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You cannot trust this president. He's not trustworthy. He has undermined our security in the region.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president, who, just a few weeks ago, was talking about World War III, he, the vice president, the neocons have been on a march to possible war with Iran for a long time.

GRAVEL: What the intelligence community has done is drop-kick the president of the United States.

MALVEAUX: But several candidates attempted to drop-kick the steady front-runner, Senator Hillary Clinton, on the same issue. They criticized her for supporting legislation which designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Edwards said it not only opened the possibility for President Bush to take Iran to war, but was, in fact, nearly a declaration of war.

Clinton bit back hard.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I understand politics, and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far. In fact, having designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, we have actually seen some changes in their behavior.


MALVEAUX: And the controversy over Iran really gave her opponents more firepower to their strategy of trying to liken the former first lady to President Bush. But team Clinton did not let any of those charges go unanswered -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux joining us from Des Moines -- thanks very much, Suzanne.

The situation with Iran and the Democratic debate, they top our roundtable right now.

Joining us here in Washington, our senior political analyst Gloria Borger and in New York CNN's Jack Cafferty. His best-selling book is called "It's Getting Ugly Out There." Also in New York, our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin. His bestseller on the Supreme Court is called "The Nine," a huge bestseller, both guys writing important books.

Jack, let me start with you.

This new NIE, this national intelligence report, saying, you know what, back in 2003, the Iranians actually suspended their nuclear weapons program, you have had a chance over the past 24 hours to digest this information. Where is the political fallout going to lie?

CAFFERTY: Well, I think it lies at the foot of President Bush.

It's disgraceful. How long ago was he aware of this NIE estimate that they continued any sort of nuclear weapons program in 2003? He has been talking about nuclear holocaust and World War III. And, even today, at this news conference, he's still in denial: Well, they're still a threat. Well, they could start again.

I mean, this is embarrassing. We come across as the gang that couldn't shoot straight. The rest of the world has to be looking and saying, what the hell are those people doing over there?

BLITZER: You know, it's also true, Gloria, that U.S. credibility around the world -- when it comes to intelligence -- is further undermined. The weapons of mass destruction were one thing back in 2002-2003. But now this is another huge embarrassment that will have some foreign policy ramifications for U.S. credibility.

Listen to what Pat Buchanan, Gloria, told me in the last hour on the political fallout.

Listen to this.


PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look at the Republican candidates. Many of them have been saying we may have to use tactical atomic weapons. Look at Hillary Clinton. She's for that Kyl resolution, which authorizes -- virtually -- the president to attack Iran. The whole political community in this country looks like it's doing the same thing we did when we went into Iraq without justification.


BLITZER: All right, speak about the political fallout, Gloria.

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I totally agree with Pat Buchanan about the Republicans. I just returned tonight from New Hampshire, spending some time with John McCain when this story broke, and with Mitt Romney. And neither one of them are backing off of their positions on Iran. They're taking the same position that the president essentially took today, which is that you should look at this new National Intelligence Estimate as a warning sign that Iran is still interested in developing nuclear weapons. And I think this really just lays out a game plan for the Democrats. It's very simple to say look, this is an administration that cherry-picked intelligence when it wanted to go to war with Iraq and it will do the same thing when it wants to go to war with Iran.

BLITZER: And I'm going to bring Jeff in here. At that Democratic radio debate earlier we heard in Suzanne Malveaux's report, the other Democratic candidates really leveling in against Hillary Clinton for supporting that resolution, declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. They say she gave Bush the green light to attack Iran.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: And she pointed out, however, that there were 75 senators on her side. So it wasn't exactly an exotic position.

But, you know, it really is worthwhile to be shocked every once in a while. And the idea that, you know, the American political system has been organized, in part -- but in significant part -- about a debate on how far we should go to take out Iran's nukes. And it's all based on fiction. And that's a pretty shocking thing.

BORGER: Well, here's what's also shocking to me, is sort of we're asking the question what did the president know and when did he know it?

He said he just learned this information last week, but his director of intelligence hinted at some changes in intelligence on Iran this last summer. So this last summer he kind of new about it, but didn't ask more about it.

BLITZER: And, you know, it's even further more complicated, Jack, because last August, the director of National Intelligence said they there may be a change in this. We'll let you know what it is. But Sy Hersh, writing in "The New Yorker" magazine last year -- more than a year ago...

CAFFERTY: Yes, I remember that.

BLITZER: ...was writing about a new National Intelligence Estimate suggesting well maybe the Iranians have stopped their nuclear weapons program. So that was a year ago.

CAFFERTY: Well, you know what's terrifying?

If he was told in August, look, we may have some new information -- our original assessment on this thing might not be right -- we think they may have given up their nuclear weapons program four years ago, why doesn't the president respond to that?

Why isn't there a change in his rhetoric?

Why isn't there some awareness that perhaps this militaristic march toward who knows what all is not the right course of action?

It's the same old, you know, contamination by these -- you know, these zealots in this administration -- the Dick Cheney mentality that everybody out there is a potential enemy -- that has led us, over the last seven years, into this corner that we find ourselves in internationally.

If your intelligence guy says our stuff on this is wrong, you just don't ignore it, do you?

BLITZER: No, you don't ignore it. You pursue it. Guys, stand by.

We have a lot more to talk about right after this break.

It could be the most important speech of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He talks about it with our own senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. That's coming up.

And the growing dispute between Romney and his archrival right now, Mike Huckabee. We'll show you who's accusing whom of some dirty politics.

That and our roundtable and a lot more of the best political team on television standing by live.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Let's get back to our roundtable.

And, Jack, I'll start with you. The Mitt Romney campaign now releasing a statement from the governor saying he's fired this landscaping company that apparently employed illegal workers: "I fired a landscaping company that I learned was employing people who are not permitted to work here in the United States." This after the debate last week in which Rudy Giuliani accused him of having a sanctuary mansion.

This is getting ugly out there.

CAFFERTY: Well, it's an interesting choice of terms. But let's -- OK, that's fine. He, you know, he was told they had illegal aliens and he fired him. If every landscaping company in America that employs illegal aliens got fired, 95 percent of the lawns in this country would never get cut. I mean let's get real here.

BLITZER: You said he...

TOOBIN: But isn't there something unseemly about this rich, rich man -- $300 million at least -- you know, trying to make sure that these, you know, minimum wage workers are thrown out of their jobs because they -- I mean is it just me?

It just seems a little gross to me, so he can make a few political points.

BLITZER: You spent some time with him, Gloria, up in New Hampshire earlier today.


BLITZER: and you also asked him about the big speech he's going to delivering Thursday on his faith -- a long anticipated speech.

I'm going to play a little clip of what he told you.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, I find that the people that I talk to -- and they come to rallies that I attend -- overwhelmingly say what you heard today, which is they don't choose a person based on which church they go to. They try and understand what their values are, what their vision is for the country, what kind of experience they've had to demonstrate do they have what it takes to actually solve the challenges that America faces?

And that is our -- that is our heritage as a nation. To look at the presidents who have served, we had Jefferson, who was a deist. He didn't believe, I think, in any specific religion. We've had Unitarians, a Catholic, of course. People of the -- we had Quakers -- a wide array of faiths. That's -- that's part of America's, if you will, pluralistic religious heritage.


BLITZER: All right, what did you come away today, Gloria, from this session you had with Mitt Romney?

BORGER: Well, he's clearly been reading up on religion in America and the presidency. He says he's been reading books about it. He wrote this speech last week himself. And I think he understands how important this is, particularly since Minister Huckabee out there is gaining on him in Iowa. I don't think -- if he were not in trouble, Wolf, I don't think he'd be giving this speech.

I think all he's got to do, honestly, is look presidential, talk about his values, talk about how his faith informs his entire life, but how he won't let his faith direct what he does in office.

TOOBIN: but he has a challenge that John Kennedy didn't have when he gave his famous speech in Houston in 1960, because Kennedy was able to say I believe that the separation of church and state is absolute. And that's exactly what he said. But Republicans don't believe that anymore. Republicans believe that church and state -- that the barriers should be reduced. So it's not as simple as saying the issues are completely separate, because Republicans by and large don't believe that now.

BORGER: Well, and there's also a big difference with Kennedy, which is that when Kennedy spoke, 28 percent of the American public was Catholic, as he was. Less than 2 percent of the American public is Mormon, and they don't really understand it.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. CAFFERTY: Well, the Mormon Church is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery and secrecy. If you're not a Mormon, you can't go in the temples. If he doesn't address the Mormon aspect in this speech, then he might as well not give it. We've got a poll that shows about one fifth the prospective voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is a Mormon than they would for a candidate who isn't.

It's the Mormon in Mitt Romney that matters to America's voters. And if he's not going to lift some of the veil and explain away some of the mystery that surrounds his religion -- which, as Gloria points out, is a very small percentage of the population of this country -- it's not like he's a Catholic or a Protestant or a Lutheran or a Methodist or a Baptist. There aren't that many Mormons and there's a lot of questions surrounding that church. And he needs to address that or this speech is a waste of time.

TOOBIN: Well, I bet he won't.

BORGER: No, I bet he won't either.

TOOBIN: I don't think he's going to go near any of the doctrine, any of the rules. He's going to simply say evaluate me based on my character and my values, and we'll see whether that's enough.

BORGER: And, you know, I don't think he will either, from talking to him today and trying to sort of get out of him what he was going to say. It's clear to me he's not going to do that.

But remember this, also, about Kennedy. Kennedy actually gave three speeches on his religion -- two during the primaries and one during the general election. If Romney does well, we might hearing more about Mormonism.

BLITZER: And this may be the first in a series of speeches.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: We shall see, guys.

And thanks very much.

Jack, stand by. Don't leave. We've got The Cafferty File.

Gloria, Jeff, we'll see you later in THE SITUATION ROOM, later in the week.

While Mitt Romney ponders what to say in that upcoming speech, he still has to ponder what to do about some stiff new competition he's facing. Republican rival Mike Huckabee is clearly surging in the polls. And now the Romney campaign is accusing some Huckabee supporters of engaging in dirty political tricks.

Dana Bash is joining us from Des Moines with more on this part of the story.

You've got some new information -- Dana. DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The Romney campaign is now asking the attorney general here in Iowa to investigate whether any law was broken with these automated calls. Now, these calls really have roiled Iowa voters. It is essentially an outside group who says that they support Mike Huckabee. They make these generated, automated calls and they give negative information about Huckabee's rivals and they promote his candidacy.

Now, I spoke with the head of this group last night. He said he has no intention of stopping. In fact, he's going to expand his efforts to help get Mike Huckabee elected.

But, you know, the Huckabee campaign is saying that they know nothing about this. In fact, Mike Huckabee himself says he knows nothing about it. It's an outside group. And he says that they are hurting, not helping, his cause. And he also said today, Wolf, that he would be for an investigation by the attorney general to find out whether any laws are being broken on his behalf.

BLITZER: All this happening, Dana, as there's new scrutiny of Mike Huckabee, who this man is.

BASH: That's right. In fact, today, Wolf -- you know, I should go back in time. Not too long ago there were 10, maybe 20 people at any given Huckabee event here in Iowa. Today, it was standing room only. Iowans are really coming to hear what all the buzz is about and they're also asking him some tough questions.



BASH (voice-over): He can say that again. Mike Huckabee awoke to news he has climbed from fifth to second in a national poll.

(on camera): Did you see the "USA Today?"

HUCKABEE: Oh, yes. I'm thrilled.

BASH (voice-over): But can he take the next step?

(on camera): Can the infrastructure and organization sort of harness this popularity?

HUCKABEE: You know, everyone asks can we take it from here?

And, of course, before that it was, can we get here?

So the answer is, yes, we got here. And, yes, we can take it from here.

BASH (voice-over): Confidence -- buoyed by a crushing Iowa crowd that came to hear him speak.

HUCKABEE: Where's the front of the room? BASH: He found it and got down to business, making sure turnout here equals turnout on Election Day.

HUCKABEE: This is a commitment card that you're going to be with us on the caucus night.

BASH: Then questions from some skeptical GOP voters -- isn't he too nice to be beat the Democrats?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quite frankly, I'm not looking for the nicest person.

BASH: To that, a favorite Huckabee line.

HUCKABEE: I'm the only person running for president who's actually run against the Bill and Hillary Clinton machine. And I didn't just run against it -- I beat it four times in Arkansas.

BASH: Here, evidence voters are hearing from Huckabee's rivals -- now spreading controversy about his record. A question about his opposition to mandatory sentencing for methamphetamine manufacturers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to know why you did that and are you going to let that happen -- let them roam free early as president?

BASH: He says he's not soft on crime, but...

HUCKABEE: And you give them no incentive, then you really are making it more difficult to control both the prison population, as well as your costs.

BASH: And Huckabee promises not to attack his opponents. But listen carefully and you hear a subtle dig at Mitt Romney.

HUCKABEE: A lot of people understand that they want to elect a president who knows what he believes and who believes today, running for president, what he believed before he ever thought about running for president.


BASH: Now, one area Huckabee will not go is Mitt Romney's Mormonism. Some of Huckabee's supporters here, Evangelicals, some suggest that Mormonism is nothing but a cult. Huckabee, all he would say about Mitt Romney's religion -- or any religion -- is that it's not relevant to the presidency -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana.

Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up right at the top of the hour.

What are you working on -- Lou.


Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN, tonight outraged American consumers at a Senate hearing today venting their anger at credit card companies because they're hiking interest rates without any warning to their customers and consumers -- even though those customers are paying their bills on time. We'll have that outrageous story in our special report tonight.

Also, something Congress and the Bush administration actually agree upon -- Congress moving to strengthen the FDA's ability to protect this nation's food supply -- and the White House actually supports the effort.

And states continuing to struggle with the illegal alien driver's license issue. The federal government no help at all, as usual. And as the controversy over New York's ill-advised drivers license giveaway shows, states are simply unprepared to deal with the millions of illegal aliens trying to get behind the wheel.

We'll have that story and a great deal more, as well as all of the day's news, at the top of the hour.

Please join us.

Wolf -- back to you.

BLITZER: We'll see you in a few moments.

Lou, thank you.

It's the hottest ticket in town -- Oprah Winfrey campaigning for Barack Obama. Some people are going to be disappointed and we're going to tell you why.

If Americans have $900 billion in credit card debt, should more be done to regulate the industry?

Jack and your e-mail, and a lot more, coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Checking our Political Ticker, just now CNN has learned that President Bush will be heading to the Middle East in January, as he continues to pursue a peace deal during this, his upcoming final year in office. The president will go to the Middle East in early January. A National Security Council spokesman said no details of an itinerary, though Israeli television is already reporting one of the stops will be Israel.

Also, Oprah Winfrey proving her star power even before she hits the campaign trail for Barack Obama. The Obama campaign says it's all out of free tickets for the Democrats rally with Winfrey in South Carolina this weekend. It takes place at an arena that holds -- get this -- only 18,000 people. No more tickets available.

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

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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, if Americans have $900 billion in credit card debt should more be done to regulate the industry?

That's about $2,200 per family.

Chris writes from Minnesota: "While I'll agree the credit card industry is a complete sham with their brutally ruthless methodologies, I don't think the solution is to involve government. The solution is rather simple -- don't buy things you can't afford and learn all the details about every financial you obligation you get in to. Enough of the nanny state."

P.J.: "It's about time someone reeled in the credit card companies. I can remember when double digit interest rates were called loan sharking and it was illegal. It's disgusting these companies have gotten away with abusing the American public for as long as they have."

Matthew in Kentucky: "The government -- no, the government needs to stay out of the affairs of private business and the affairs of individuals. Careless spending with credit cards lands you in this tight mess and that is your own responsibility. The federal government isn't Superman."

Kelsey in Seattle, Washington: "I'm a 19-year-old college student. I have about $500 credit card debt. I may not know too much about economics, but I accept responsibility for the purchases I've made and I think the rest of America should, too. I realize some things have to be bought on credit, but I don't see what a government regulation could do to solve the problem that an individual couldn't do themselves."

Daniel writes from Oregon: "So the baby boomers can't or won't read. They have always felt entitled to what they want when they want it. Now, their parents can't bail them out of this pickle of their own making. They expect daddy government to do it for them. Soon, they'll all be flushed down the toilet -- as they should be."

And Mike writes from McComb, Illinois: "Jack, come on. Why should the American people be any different than their government? This is Bush's economic policy -- spend, spend, spend. Grandchildren beware."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to, where we post more of them online, along with video clips of The Cafferty File.

The wise fellow who I was named after, Wolf, my uncle Jack, told me when I was a kid, he said, if you can't pay cash, you can't afford it. He excluded a home and a car, but that was all. And that's pretty good advice, I suppose.

BLITZER: Well, I guess for a lot of people who don't know how to deal with credit, that's excellent advice. Thanks very much, Jack.

See you back here tomorrow.

Entire books written about President Bush's way of pronouncing words. And he didn't necessarily disappoint in today's White House news conference. Jeanne Moos will fill us in.

That's coming up.


BLITZER: You could call it a play on pronunciation. President Bush certainly has his own take on words -- and a couple of them, in particular.

CNN's Jeanne Moos has this Moost Unusual look at today's White House news conference.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Iranian nuclear genie apparently just went back in the bottle after all those accusations that Iran was...


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not allow to have Iran have a nuclear weapon.

BUSH: If you're interested in avoiding World War III...

MOOS: World War III on hold?," asked the normally conservative "Drudge Report." This, in the wake of U.S. intelligence agencies saying that Iran halted its nuclear arms effort four years ago. Talk about the bomb, the president was bombarded with questions.

QUESTION: So can't you be accused of hyping this threat?

QUESTION: Are you concerned that the United States is losing credibility?

MOOS: With so many questions on Iran, the president had plenty of chances to nuke the pronunciation.

BUSH: A nucular weapon.

MOOS: ...of not one, but two words.

BUSH: And Amaninajad.

MOOS: That would be Iran's president.

BUSH: Until Amaninajad came in...

Prior to the election of the Amaninajad...

Amaninajad came along...

MOOS: Take it from a native speaker...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pronounce the H -- Ahmadinejad.

MOOS (on camera): Ahmadinejad.


MOOS (voice-over): Though sometimes it feels as if the president is tweaking the Iranians with his pronunciations, sort of like Stephen Colbert.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST: Come on President Achmen-a-ni-e-gza-gza- gaboridad.

MOOS: And you can almost bet President Bush is going nucular on purpose.

BUSH: Nucular weapons program.

Nucular weapons program.

Covert nucular weapons program.

MOOS: The dictionary describes nucular as "disapproved, but in widespread use among educated speakers." With all those pesky questions about Iran, no wonder the president got nostalgic about the days when he first ran for president, flying around campaigning.

BUSH: Having my friend Candy Crowley pass a virus around and...


MOOS: The president says CNN's Candy Crowley gave him a respiratory infection. She says to substantiate that would require a National Intelligence Estimate.

As we watched the president fielding questions...

BUSH: Psychology 101 ain't working.

MOOS: We noticed a seating chart on his podium to help him identify reporters and what seemed to be an X over the seat occupied by Helen Thomas. Though she kept her hand up, the president never called on her. So we called Helen, asking what she would have asked. She said: "Now that we know accusations about WMD in Iraq and Iran were wrong, isn't it time to give everyone a Christmas present and bring the troops home from Iraq?

No wonder the president... BUSH: A nucular...

MOOS: ...treats Helen as if she's radioactive.

Jeanne Moos CNN, New York.


BLITZER: That's it for us.

We'll see you back here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.