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The Situation Room

Wave of Killings in Iraq; Mitt Romney Speaks to Veterans; More Campaign Attacks; Clinton Warns Of Mass Atrocities In Syria; Ad Wars Heating Up; Campaigns Changing Tone In Colorado; Gun Control: A "Fool's Errand"; For First Time In Decades, No Vet Running

Aired July 24, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: grenades and gasoline rigged to set off a massive explosion. We are learning right now new details of the death trap inside the theater massacre suspect's apartment. Stand by.

Also, a major and blistering foreign policy speech by Mitt Romney opening a new line of attack on President Obama.

Plus, a wave of killings in Iraq culminating in the country's deadliest day of the year. Could it be linked to the crisis right next door in Syria?

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

The massacre inside that Colorado movie theater now appears to be only part of the horror that was planned. A law enforcement official who has seen video of the suspect James Holmes' booby-trapped apartment tells CNN it was rigged with more than 30 homemade grenades and 10 gallons of gasoline.

The source says that would have created a fireball knocking out walls, engulfing the entire building in flames undoubtedly killing many more people.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is joining us now once again from Aurora, Colorado.

Ed, what else are you learning? Because there are new developments emerging even as we speak.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a great deal going on behind the scenes, but now there's a great effort to make sure that the principal players and many of the people involved in these investigations no longer speak publicly about what is going on. The judge issuing a gag order.

Ever since that has happened, it's become much more difficult to be able to report on this story and to keep up with what is going on. But we were told a few days ago by the police chief here in Aurora that today, Tuesday, would be the day that defense attorneys would get a chance to go through the movie theater to do their own analysis inside the movie theater and gather their own evidence as they continue or begin the process of working on their case to be able to defend James Holmes, the 24-year-old suspect in this case. And then at some point tomorrow, the theater would be turned back over to the company that owns it. And what happens to it after then is very much up in the air about whether or not, when or if this theater will reopen. So we will try to figure out how that plays out over the next couple of days, Wolf.

BLITZER: You have also been putting, Ed, some of those dots together on how James Holmes allegedly paid for that huge arsenal that he had assembled, I guess within only a few months.

LAVANDERA: Well, that's one of the aspects we have been working on. If you start following the timeline, it was in June just a little more than a month ago that James Holmes dropped out of that neuroscience Ph.D. program here at the University of Colorado.

But according to authorities, it was during -- toward the end of that time that he had begun amassing the arsenal of weapons, the four weapons that he had bought in three local gun shops here in the Denver area, as well as 6,000 rounds of ammunition, plus all of the materials that you detailed there at the beginning, Wolf, about what was found inside of his apartment.

A lot of questions, as you know, how does a student like this pay for this? It's incredibly expensive. The grant that he was using to go to attend college here in the Denver area gave him a stipend, a monthly stipend of almost $2,200 a month.

His rent in that apartment complex that we had shown you from what we have been able to gather could be anywhere between $600 and $900 a month. So that left -- had some money left over. And the question is whether or not some of that money, that grant money that came from the National Institute of Health might have been used to buy the weaponry and the explosives in this case.

So that is a question we know investigators are also taking a much closer look at, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed, it's now been more than 24 hours since the victims' families, victims and their families saw Holmes in that courtroom. They have had a little sense to digest what they saw, that red hair, that dazed look from time to time. What kind of reaction are you seeing anecdotally from folks you are speaking with right there on the scene in Aurora?

LAVANDERA: I think from the people who have been most closely injured and hurt, not only physically, but emotionally with the loss of loved ones and that sort of thing, there is a great deal of, you know, people who are questioning whether or not who they saw there yesterday in that courtroom is actually the real James Holmes, and many people who believe that he was putting on an act in some way.

There's also a great deal of speculation that he might have been under the influence of some sort of prescription medication, that he was struggling at times it appeared to stay awake. There are some people who think he might have been under the influence of meds, so a wide range of emotions and reactions to that court appearance still from yesterday.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera on the scene for us, we will check back with you.

Let's get a little bit more now on what's going on.

CNN's Tom Foreman has been investigating.

Tom, take us inside what was clearly designed to be a death trap, that apartment, because you have been looking at how it was all assembled.


This is really one of the great mysteries of the story. Exactly what was the configuration inside this apartment? I want to talk about what we do know. Look at this video from a few days back when the authorities were just trying to get in to this place.

They were looking through the window. They were moving very, very slowly. All explanations are because inside they were being met with an array of different explosives and triggers and potential problems.

What do we know about what was inside that apartment? Well, if you look at this diagram here, it gives you some idea of what we're pretty certain of at this point. In the middle of the room were about 30 of these canisters, each about the size of a softball.

This is the same sort of thing they use for fireworks displays that shoot up into the air. These we believe were packed with black powder. Now, the way they were packed and the way they were wired would make the difference between whether or not they exploded or whether or not they just broke into a very, very intense fire.

Also around the room -- you mentioned 10 gallons of gasoline. It wasn't in one place. Our understanding is that it was in a variety of glass and metal containers around the room. In effect, the design would suggest that it was to spread the fire much more quickly in many different directions.

There was also according to the investigators a maze of wires running out in all directions, all of this wired to the central core here. If we look at that video of what they blew up out in the plains there after they took it away, this gives you an idea of the burning and/or explosive force of what they took out of this room.

You can see what that would do inside a normal apartment setting. This could be a big fire and cause an awful lot of damage. And the real trick to it all, though, Wolf, was the triggers. I spoke with a man from a company that sells this type of trigger, what we believe we're talking about here, and they're very, very common.

This is the sort of thing you would have in your home for a home security system , for example. It could be a simple trigger that is either set off by some kind of motion or by the passing over it of say a door that has a little magnet in the frame that is very much like your home security systems. They only cost a few dollars. And yet they're highly effective.

That's what we believe the authorities broke up with one of these little water sort of gun explosives they have that will blow apart these things and keep them from blowing up. But they had to be very careful in that process, because that spaghetti maze of wires out there to all these different potential triggers and ways of setting it off.

They obviously had to be careful, Wolf, that even if they stopped one trigger over here, there might now be another one here or here or here. That's why it took so long. When we ultimately get the schematic of this room, when we ultimately see what was going on there, I think we're going to see an amazingly complex contraption that presented all sorts of dangerous challenges to the investigators.

BLITZER: And I have heard conflicting reporting whether or not, for example, if you know anything about the IEDs, the improvised explosive devices in Iraq or Afghanistan, you know they sometimes throw in nails to go out when the explosion goes to increase the intensity of the death, if you will.

Do we know if anything like that was in there? I have heard conflicting reports.

FOREMAN: I have heard the same things, Wolf. I do not know it. And I think we should not report it. We simply don't know that to be the case.

But obviously people are going to look at that because you're absolutely right. If you have these set up to actually explode, they are much more dangerous if on the outside is something that acts as shrapnel that tears through the room. That's something even the most amateur bombmaker would know. So it will be interesting to see the degree to which they find proof of anything like that as they continue to go through this.

BLITZER: All right, Tom, thanks very much, Tom Foreman with that.

In the wake of the massacre, there are now new arguments over gun control. But old politics are marking the debate on Capitol Hill.

Our congressional correspondent, Kate Bolduan, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM working this part of the story.

It's intense up on Capitol Hill. What emerges from all that intensity remains to be seen. But what's going on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Remains to be seen, but worth noting today Democrat and Republican, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder today for an emotional moment on the House floor.

Away from the floor, there was some talk of the need for more stricter gun control legislation in light of the tragedy. But what's also clear is that it's not going very far.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And as I said once before and as our governor said, we will remember these people who were hurt. And we will help them all along the way.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): A poignant moment of silence on the House floor honoring the victims of the Colorado theater shooting, along with a renewed promise by some Democrats to push for what they call commonsense gun control legislation.

REP. DIANA DEGETTE (D), COLORADO: I would just pose this question. How many more moments of silence do we have to have? How many vigils and prayer services do we have to have?

BOLDUAN: House and Senate Democrats focusing this time on banning high-capacity magazines.

REP. CAROLYN MCCARTHY (D), NEW YORK: This has nothing to do with Second Amendment rights. This was made for military, for police. This is meant to kill as many people as possible in the shortest period of time.

BOLDUAN: So why does no one expect any real action? Democrats continue to blame Republicans and the NRA.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: We see what's in the house. And we see the power of the NRA around here.

BOLDUAN: Republicans argue stricter gun control laws won't prevent tragedies.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I think the widespread view is that somebody who is that unbalanced will find some way to do harm.

BOLDUAN: House Speaker John Boehner even flipping the president's own message to his advantage.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: He's not going to use this horrific event to push for new gun laws. I agree.

BOLDUAN: And the politics of gun policy remain exactly the same, a nonstarter. Top Democratic leaders know that, openly recognizing they don't have the votes and don't sense the political will, avoiding pointed questions on the issue Tuesday.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm not going to be debating magazine size and everything here with you today.

QUESTION: What kind of gun control policy changes are needed after Aurora? Are you concerned it's a losing issue for Democrats?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: No, I'm concerned about the people who died there and getting all the facts as to how that happened, what the mental health issues involved here are and how he acquired the guns.

QUESTION: Do you think Republicans might be willing to work with you on gun control?

PELOSI: You will have to ask them.


BOLDUAN: And while there was clearly some blaming and finger-pointing going on, on Capitol Hill, which is, of course, not new, virtually every Democrat supporting stricter gun laws in so many words today made clear that until voters tell Congress that is what they want, it's unlikely to go anywhere.

It's unlikely to happen, especially in an election year, when gun policy has not so far ranked anywhere near the top of the issues that voters care most about what matters to their...


BLITZER: You don't hear Mitt Romney talking so much about it. Thank certainly don't hear even the president of the United States talking about it, at least not now. Thanks very much, Kate, for that good report.


BOLDUAN: Yes, of course.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney accuses the White House of -- and I'm quoting the Republican presidential candidate -- "contemptible conduct." We have details of his blistering speech and a new line of attack against the president.

And the Obama campaign is now fighting back on another front. We're following new developments on the so-called ad wars.

Plus, the growing concern over Syria's chemical weapons. What would it take for Bashar al-Assad to unleash them on his own people?


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty's here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, with the election just three months away now and the economy continuing to struggle, a new poll suggests that Americans overwhelmingly trust Mitt Romney to get the economy back on track. "USA Today"/Gallup polls show more than two to one, 63 percent to 29 percent, Americans say Romney's business background would help him make good decisions about the economy. Pardon me.

The Obama campaign better take note. This is a poll that suggests the president's strategy of relentless attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital and his business background could backfire, big time.

With unemployment above 8 percent for 41 straight months, Americans might not care so much what Romney was doing 10 years ago. What they care about is someone fixing the economy today. In fact, a lot of voters probably find Romney's business background to be a plus. Meanwhile, the president has his own strengths over his GOP rival in the same poll. The poll shows by a two to one margin, voters say that Mr. Obama is more likable than Mitt Romney. By wide margins voters say the president understands their problems better and that he's more honest and trustworthy than Romney. Which sets up an interesting dilemma come Election Day. Are Americans going to vote for the candidate who they think can fix the economy, the nation's top issue? Or for the one they like best?

And that's our question. Is it more important for a president to be able to handle the economy or to be likable?

Go to, post a comment on my blog. Or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

He's been hammering President Obama on the economy, but today, there was a new line of attack by Mitt Romney. In a major foreign policy speech, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee accused the president and his administration of leaking sensitive classified information strictly for political gain.

CNN's Dana Bash is in Reno, Nevada, right now. That's where Romney addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars just a couple hours or so ago, Dana.

So what did Romney say?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, from Mideast policy to national defense cuts, to the issue of integrity effectively, that is what Mitt Romney hit the president on. More searing rhetoric than we've ever heard before. And it was very careful to hit the issue that Jack was just talking about, the issue they think inside the Romney campaign can hurt the most is credibility and trust.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest.

BASH (voice-over): Foreign policy is not a top priority for voters this year. So Mitt Romney decided to pummel the president on an issue they do care about -- trust and credibility.

ROMNEY: Exactly who in the White House betrayed these secrets?

BASH: Romney used his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention to blast the president for a series of national security leaks Romney said were politically driven to help the president. Hanging his stepped up attacks on new comments from the Democratic Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from its ranks. ROMNEY: Did a superior authorize it? These are things that Americans are entitled to know and they're entitled to know it now. If the president believes as he said last week that the buck stops with him, then he owes all Americans a full and prompt accounting of the facts. The time for stonewalling is over.

BASH: That's the kick. Now, the kicker.

ROMNEY: What White House would reveal classified material for political gain? I'll tell you right now, mine will not.

BASH: Feinstein later issued a statement saying she's, quote, "disturbed" her remarks are being used to impugn President Obama. Romney also served up a crowd pleaser for this audience of veterans, warning against some $50 billion in budget cuts to defense next year.

ROMNEY: We're just months away from an arbitrary across the board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts, severely shrink our force structure, and impair our ability to meet and deter threats.

Don't bother by the way trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of that, unless that rationale is wishful thinking. Strategy is not driving the president's massive defense cuts.

BASH: Despite Romney's aim at the president, the reality is those cuts were not simply a presidential strategy. They come from a debt reduction compromise Romney's fellow Republicans voted for.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: Did we get 100 percent of the discretionary cuts we were looking for? No. We got two-thirds. That's better than zero.

BASH: One hundred seventy-five House Republicans, 72 percent of them, voted for $110 billion in spending cuts. Half of which come from defense.

In the Senate, more than half of Republican senators 29 voted for the cuts.


BASH: And this foreign policy speech, rather, was meant for Romney to pivot to the world stage because he is about to go on a trip to Europe and to Israel.

On those notes, Wolf, there are a couple of highlights -- he accused the president of treating Israel in a shabby way. And on Iran, he seemed to take a little bit further step in defining his own policy saying he wants to have nothing short of full suspension of uranium. And one more issue I think is noteworthy and that is Afghanistan, he said that he wants to completely transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, in our next hour we're going to have a major debate between a Romney and Obama supporter on foreign policy, Robert Wexler versus Dan Senor. That's coming up in our next hour. They strongly disagree especially when it comes to what Romney said about President Obama's position on Israel.

Standby for that, Dana Bash on the scene in Reno.

Earlier this month, an expedition set out to solve the mystery of the flier, Amelia Earhart's disappearance. We're finally hearing back from them. We'll have details in a minute.

And later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's dire warning about mass atrocities going on in Syria right now.


BLITZER: A new study shows nearly one in 10 U.S. employers may drop health insurance coverage for their workers.

Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that story, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on, Lisa?


Well, the study shows most companies with 50 or more employees aren't ready to implement the new health care reform law. And while 9 percent plan to drop coverage in the next one to three years, 81 percent of companies, that's accounting for 84 percent of the U.S. workforce, will keep offering insurance. Nearly two-thirds of the employers surveyed don't like the health care system as it is now.

Two former editors of Rupert Murdoch's defunct "News of the World" British tabloid will face criminal charges and the possibility of jail time. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, was a former communications director for the British prime minister, will be charged next month in connection with their newspaper's alleged hacking into the phones and voice mail of celebrities and crime victims.

And we learned today the members of a new scientific expedition did not solve the mystery of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart's disappearance back in 1937. Based on this photo and other evidence, searchers had hoped to find the wreckage of her plane just off a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, but sad to say they didn't. And now they are returning to Hawaii.

As you know, if you've seen in today's Google doodle, this is the 115th anniversary of Earhart's birth -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Lisa.

A disturbing warning today from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She says a small group of nations is blocking efforts to stop mass atrocities in Syria right now. And she's naming names. Standby for that.

And later, something President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have in common, it's very rare in presidential races.


BLITZER: Today in a special conference here in Washington on preventing genocide and mass atrocities against civilians, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out the situation in Syria.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: As the Assad regime continues its bloody assault on its own people despite crippling sanctions, condemnation, increasing political pressure. They have found support primarily from Iran, Russia and China.

We are sending a message to the Syrian regime and making clear that there will be consequences for their actions. But I have to say that we are also increasing our efforts to assist the opposition.

This is a very complicated and difficult set of circumstances on the ground. And yet we know that the sooner it ends, the less violence there will be and the less chance for extremism to take hold.


BLITZER: The secretary's remarks taking on added significance. She was speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington at a symposium co-sponsored with the Council on Foreign Relations and CNN.

CNN's Arwa Damon was there, I was there. It was an emotional day. I think a lot of sensitive issues came up and a lot of concern, Arwa, that Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria, might -- repeat might, use chemical or biological warfare against his own people in an act of desperation or whatever.

Is that -- you covered this from the beginning. Is that at all realistic?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At this point in time, Wolf, I mean any situation in Syria is a possibility. This is a government that is not even trying to deny that it possesses these chemical and biological weapons.

This is a government already threatened to use them against any sort of external threat. This is a government that many describe as being irrational, schizophrenic. And when backed into this corner most certainly anything is possible.

Not a concern that the weapons can be used against the Syrian population, but of course also the concern that they could end up in the hands of extremist and then put to who knows what sort of devastating use.

BLITZER: As we remember the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein in the 80s used chemical weapons against the Kurds in the northern part of Iraq. Against the Iranians, they were at war with Iran. So it wouldn't be the first time we've seen these kinds of atrocities. But with the social media factor right now, it would be presumably we'd get the video, we'd get the images, it would be out there on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, the whole world would be watching.

DAMON: Would be watching, yes. But, again, that goes down to the whole issue of what would they then be able to do. Would an act like that actually force unity when it comes to the global stage and handling the issue on Syria?

Secretary Clinton in those remarks that she was making earlier was talking about America's moral responsibility to prevent these sort of mass atrocities from taking place.

We also learned at this -- during this event was that the U.S., according to a poll, Americans are in fact slightly more than half of them willing to see the U.S. take on some sort of military intervention if it's part of a coalition in Syria.

So the factors do exist where the U.S. could possibly lead this type of an effort. A lot of opposition activists have been messaging me on Twitter asking, well, if all these factors exist, then what is the U.S. and world waiting for?

BLITZER: We've seen some horrible atrocities over the past 24/48 hours in Iraq right now. Now, we're not paying a whole lot of attention to Iraq, all U.S. troops are out of Iraq.

But dozens and dozens of people have been slaughtered in Iraq. Here's the question, is there a connection to what's going on in Iraq right now and what's going on in Syria?

DAMON: A lot of Iraqis, a lot of analysts, will tell you there most certainly is. In Iraq in a single day yesterday you had 35 attacks across seven provinces leaving more than 100 people dead.

The thing is that as long as instability exists in Syria along these sectarian Shiite fault lines, that most certainly gets translated into Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq, weakened, yes, exterminated, no.

Likely to resurge and there are some indications that it is resurging in Iraq and then exporting itself and some of its expertise into Syria.

This power vacuum exists not just in Syria but across the entire region that lends itself for the re-emergence for groups like al Qaeda, Shia extremists as well. Most certainly everything that happens inside the Middle East is tied.

BLITZER: You know, you're an amazing reporter. I've said this to you many times. You're here in Washington right now you came in for the conference at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But I just want to say you've covered the warfare in Iraq from the beginning in 2003, then you were in Libya and Egypt, Syria, you're based in Beirut. I get a lot of e-mails from viewers and tweets, how do you do it? Give us a sentence or two.

DAMON: You do it because it is our fundamental obligation as members of the global community to go out there to the best of our capacities and we have the responsibility of going out there, covering what's happening.

Covering the human stories, the mother that's lost her child, the father that's going to grow up without a son and translate that into something that is eventually going to bring about awareness and accountability.

And doing that, being able to do that, it fulfils a fundamental sense of purpose and obligation.

BLITZER: You're doing an amazing job for all of our viewers. I know you're headed back to the region, came in for this symposium and heading back. Good luck, be careful over there. Arwa Damon, we're proud to say she works for CNN.

The Obama campaign's just changed its advertising tactics. Coming up in our "Strategy Session," the president's new tone and his new target.

Later, something Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have in common. Something we haven't seen in a presidential race for nearly 70 years.


BLITZER: The ad wars in the race for the White House certainly heating up right now. The latest skirmish is over this Mitt Romney ad, which uses President Obama's own words against him.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: If you got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My father's hands didn't build this company. My hands didn't build this company. My son's hands aren't building this company. Did somebody else take out the loan on my father's house to finance the equipment?


BLITZER: Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She's traveling with the president right now in Portland, Oregon.

Brianna, how is the Obama campaign responding? It's a very, very tough Romney ad?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. There are a couple of new ads out today from the Obama campaign where for the first time this election cycle, President Obama is talking directly to the camera. In one of them, it's a rebuttal of that Romney ad that you just played. We just got our hands on it so we're trying to turn it around for you.

But in it President Obama says those ads taking my words about small businesses out of context are flat out wrong. He says, of course, Americans build their own businesses.

And President Obama also slammed Mitt Romney on this very topic last night at a fundraiser in Oakland.

BLITZER: We don't have that sound bite, unfortunately. Maybe we'll cue it up later. Brianna, the ad wars in Colorado, the aftermath of the shooting there, both campaigns took down their ads for a while. What's the latest on that front?

KEILAR: We understand, Wolf, from the Obama campaign that ads will be going back upcoming on Saturday. Of course, the question that we all have is what kind of ads are we talking about?

Because so many of the ads that both the Obama and Romney campaigns have been running are very negative. We're expecting at this point as they decide exactly what ads go back up that one of the ads will be this one called choices that was put out today.

It's a bit of a softer one. Certainly, President Obama talks about Mitt Romney, but you wouldn't characterize this as an attack ad. He's looking directly at the camera.

So I think obviously the campaign is afraid. And you'll see this from both campaigns, to do something that might be perceived as tasteless. So that's why they're going perhaps at least with this more soft ad.

BLITZER: I think that's smart especially in Colorado. Thanks, Brianna. Brianna's traveling with the president.

Let's discuss what's going on in our "Strategy Session," right now with Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen and also joining us Erick Erickson. He's a CNN contributor as well as the editor in chief of the conservative political blog,

Smart strategy on the president's part to have a low key -- I'm worried about you just looking straight into the camera kind of ad in Colorado right now as opposed to the more hard-hitting negative attack ads we've seen so frequently, Hilary?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don't think it's just that it's about smart strategy. I think what this ad says, and it's called the choice, people haven't seen it, you can pull it up on YouTube or, is that the president is really talking about a positive vision.

And he's saying, you know what, this isn't an election about attack ads. The tag line is politics may seem small, but the choices you face have never been bigger. And the choices, A, an administration that gives tax cuts to the wealthy and rolls back regulations on banks versus what his vision is, which is to support the middle class through additional tax cuts or education through investment and domestic energy.

And that's, I think, where the president wants to be. That's his sweet spot is being thoughtful, you know, comparative and tough, but really having a conversation with the American people.

BLITZER: It coincides with James Carville's new line as you know, Erick, it's the middle class, stupid. He co-wrote a book about that. This ad certainly would appear to be consistent with that.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. It is, Wolf. The most striking thing to me on both sides of this though is that neither the Obama campaign nor the Romney campaign is yet to find a consistent message.

They've been shaking them up, which you can do during the summer in a campaign because there really aren't a lot of people paying attention right now. And the Obama campaign can actually get more ads on TV.

Most of Romney's ads have been web ads, because he doesn't have the general election fund yet since he's not officially the nominee. But neither side has come up with a compelling consistent narrative in their commercials.

Frankly, even the Republican "Super PACs," a lot of people inside the Romney campaign have commented that Paul Begala's "Priorities USA," which is supporting Barack Obama is extremely effective. The Republican "Super PAC," so far not so much.

BLITZER: Let's switch gears for both of you for a moment. Erick, this time I'll start with you. I just read your latest piece in which you said, gun control and I'm quoting you now, "is a fool's errand," why do you say that?

ERICKSON: Because, Wolf, it's very much like Pandora's Box. We've seen in Chicago, we've seen in Washington, D.C., we've seen around the country that the people who hand in guns when you do gun control are law-abiding citizens.

The criminals keep the guns. We saw during the assault weapons ban from the 1990s is what happened is manufacturers just changed the specs on guns to make them slightly different from the legal parameters that were banned.

So in effect they were still selling the same guns, just the sights were different and the capacity was slightly different. It's extremely difficult to put guns back in Pandora's Box. It's just not going to happen.

BLITZER: Hilary, listen to what Mitt Romney said on CNBC last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I still believe that the second amendment is the right course to preserve and defend and don't believe that new laws are going to make a difference in this type of tragedy. There were of course very stringent laws, which existed in Aurora, Colorado.


BLITZER: You expect that we'll be hearing something really significant substantive on gun control from President Obama any time soon?

ROSEN: No. I don't. I think they may talk about more enforcement and things like trying to find ways to prevent people from buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition online without anybody, you know, raising a question.

You know, I think that generally the issue of gun control ends up being a fool's errand because even when we get it like the assault weapons ban that Erick talked about, which I believe ought to be reinstated.

There were so many loopholes in it that it was really only affecting one or two rifles and people did actually manufacture around it. But the first thing we'd have to agree on are a bunch of principles that there's no reason for individuals to be able to buy guns that have, you know, hundred rounds of automatic bullets that come out in seconds.

That's not sport. That's not traditional hunting. There's no rationale for it. But we have seen those kinds of weapons be extremely effective and extremely dangerous in crisis situations.

BLITZER: Erick, we're out of time, but very quickly respond to Hilary.

ERICKSON: Yes. You know, I think we need to get right down to the facts that we're not going to see guns spitting out hundreds of rounds in a few seconds. I mean, we can't put it back in the box. They will manufacture rounded and we do have the second amendment.

BLITZER: All right, we'll continue this debate. It's not going away. The presidential candidates may not want to discuss it, but we'll discuss it here in THE SITUATION ROOM, I am sure. Hilary Rosen, Erick Erickson, guys, thanks very much for coming in.

There's something different about this presidential race that hasn't been seen in almost 70 years. Neither candidate has direct military experience. We're taking a closer look at what that might mean come November.

And coming up in our new 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour, my interview with Bill Gates. Why the fight against aids has brought him right now here to Washington?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: For decades they've been a staple of presidential campaigns, ads touting the candidates' military records, but not this year.

In fact, this is the first White House race in more than three generations in which neither candidate has any direct military experience.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us now with more on this part of the story. Chris, what are you learning?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just a couple hours ago, Mitt Romney went before a room full of veterans to make his case for the presidency. And what's really shaping up to be one of the most unique races in generations.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Does boot camp still matter to veterans casting ballots?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It does every time I go to vote at every level. I look at if you're a veteran or not and if you got a background.

LAWRENCE: But this election neither candidate has ever served in the military.

ROMNEY: If I become commander in chief, the United States of America will fulfill its destiny and its duty.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We've got the best trained, best led, best equipped military in history. And as commander and chief I am going to keep it that way.

LAWRENCE: It's a choice American voters haven't faced in nearly 70 years when Roosevelt ran against Dewey.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's why they have the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That's why they have their advisors who know what they're doing, OK. So that doesn't bother me at all.

LAWRENCE: So Mitt Romney can talk tough on Iran and not be criticized for getting deferments during Vietnam the way Bill Clinton was 20 years ago.

STU ROTHENBURG, POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it puts Romney pretty much where most Americans are. They didn't go to war. They haven't been out in the battlefield.

LAWRENCE: But political analysts say voters still want to believe a candidate can command America's soldiers and spies.

ROTHENBURG: He doesn't have to jump over that hurdle. Being president for four years, having him make some foreign policy decisions, authorizing drone strikes, for example, that's enough of a credential for him.

LAWRENCE: But a May Gallup poll shows veterans supporting Romney 38 percent to 54 percent.

JOHN ULLVOT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Governor Romney can say he can oversee managing large organizations and it can really at the end of the day make the right call.


LAWRENCE: And maybe in some ways we all should have seen this coming, Obama beat John McCain. Before that George W. Bush, a national guardsman, defeated Vietnam veterans, John Kerry and Al Gore.

And Bill Clinton took out two war heroes, Bob Dole and the first President Bush. In fact, for the past 20 years, the candidate with the more distinguished military record has lost the election -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Chris Lawrence, good reporting.

Coming up, by the way, in our next hour, banning the big gulp. The controversial effort in New York City to outlaw those supersize sodas.

In our new 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour later here in THE SITUATION ROOM, survivors of the Colorado theatre massacre, they are speaking out in emotional interviews today including one who tried to save the youngest victim.


BLITZER: Jack's back with the "Cafferty File," -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Question this hour, Wolf, is it more important for the president to be able to handle the economy or to be likable?

Jenny writes from Georgia, "Is this a real question? I would vote for Oscar, The Grouch if I thought he gets the economy back on track. Is he running?"

Dave in Seattle, "The two aren't mutually exclusive. It's difficult to get elected if you're not likable and it's difficult to help the economy if you're not elected. Our president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time."

Allen in Placerville, California, "Why should we have to like them? The economy's what's important. Fix that and people will like you."

Tony writes, "It's more important for the president to be able to handle the economy. Being likable doesn't put food on the table." Ron in Florida says, "The presidential election's the biggest popularity contest of all time. Ability has nothing to do with it.

If you have the ability to get nominated, you have the ability to run the free world. Likability is what you have to have to get nominated, the economy is an afterthought."

Lee in Pennsylvania says, "I'm Obama's age. I would likely voted for him for prom king if I'd gone to high school with him. But putting a man in charge of the largest budget in human history when all he'd ever done was balance a checkbook just wasn't smart."

And Cliff in New York writes, "Jack, use your own experience as a gauge. How does a crotchety, jaded, sarcastic, irascible New Yorker prosper through a distinguished five decades long career. Competence always trumps likability."

Thank you, Cliff, I think. If you want to read more about this, go to the blog, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- back handed compliments.

BLITZER: Was Cliff describing you, Jack?

CAFFERTY: I think that's what he was trying to get at there, yes.

BLITZER: All right, Jack Cafferty --

CAFFERTY: I don't know where he gets that. Fuzzy would be the words I used.

BLITZER: Very sentimental.

CAFFERTY: That too.

BLITZER: OK, Jack, thank you.