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State of the Union

Interview With Senators Shelby, Leahy; Interview With Eric Cantor, Mitt Romney

Aired May 03, 2009 - 09:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: I'm John King, and this is our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, May 3th.

After just three months in office, President Obama gets a rare gift -- a vacancy on the nation's highest court. But with opportunity comes pressure, from within his own party and from worried conservatives. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Republican Senator Richard Shelby right here to talk about the legal and political stakes.

Senator Arlen Specter's party switch is the latest blow to the Republican Party, but leaders of a new outreach effort say better days for the GOP are closer than you think. We'll ask House Republican Whip Eric Cantor and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney about rebuilding the Republican brand and about the lessons they're learning from the Democrat in the White House.

There are now more than 780 confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu strain in 17 countries, including 160 cases right here in the United States. We'll take you inside the government's Washington war room so you can judge the administration's response to this alarming outbreak. That's all ahead in this hour of "State of the Union."

Justice David Souter's decision to retire gives President Obama his first chance and an early chance to put his stamp on the Supreme Court. The president says his selection team will quickly get to work. So, too, though, are all the competing political voices. There are competing pressures from White House allies to pick a woman, a Latino, an African-American, and conservatives are gearing up, too, watching the White House and warning their allies not to shy away from a spirited confirmation battle.

We discuss both the legal issues and the political pressures with the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Republican Senator Richard Shelby.

Chairman Leahy, I'd like to begin the conversation with you. As the Democrat, the chairman of the committee that will consider the president's nominee, after eight years of George W. Bush, what are you looking for, sir? There are some who say name a middle-of-the-road, a pragmatist, a coalition builder, but there are others on the left who say, no, we need intellectual fire power to go up against Justice Scalia, to go up against Justice Alito. What would you like, sir?

LEAHY: Well, I've talked to President Obama about this. I will be meeting with him this week. I've also encouraged him to meet with both the Republican and Democratic leadership on this issue.

But you know what I think about? As you walk into the Supreme Court, over the -- over the doorway, there's a big piece of Vermont marble, and on it's carved, "equal justice under law." I want, first and foremost, somebody who believes in equal justice under law. That is equal justice for all, whether they are liberals or conservatives, Democrats, Republicans or whatever. And I think that is who he is going to look for.

Remember, the president was a constitutional law professor. He understands the court probably better than certainly any president in my lifetime. And I know some of the names he's thinking of. They are all going to be extremely good, good people.

I don't want to see an ideologue. I've said before I don't like to see an ideologue of either the right or the left. I don't think we're going to have one.

KING: Well, Senator Shelby, I want you to explain how this standard applies to you. Because I'm holding up a pocket version of the Constitution here. There are some who say any president, when given this rare opportunity, should read this, and what a judge should do is read this, and a constructionist would say do no more, do no less than the founders intended. But Senator Shelby, President Obama has laid out some of his thoughts on this choice. Here is something he said back in 2007 to Planned Parenthood. "We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old, and that's the criteria by which I'll be selecting my judges."

Is that the right criteria, Senator Shelby?

SHELBY: Well, I think that's part of it, but that's not all the criteria. I think the criteria should be to follow the law, not to make the law. To follow the Constitution, to try to stay within a lot of norms. I have no illusions about President Obama appointing a conservative like Alito or Roberts and so forth. But if he will appoint a pragmatist, someone who is not an ideologue, that someone is not just going to light all the lightbulbs in America on the left, I think that would be good for the country. He is very smart. He is very careful. I hope he is going to be careful in this appointment.

KING: Could there be, Senator Shelby, a sense of payback brewing among Republicans in that Senator Obama, before he was President Obama, voted against both Bush nominees, voted against Judge Alito, voted against Chief Justice Roberts. And Senator Lindsey Graham, who's on the committee, the Judiciary Committee, says this in the New York Times. He says, "President Obama should hope that Republican senators are fairer than he was when he was a senator."

SHELBY: Well, I'm not a payback type of guy. I think you have to keep moving.

On the other hand, a lot of us were aware of then Senator Obama's votes against Alito and I believe against Roberts, and a lot of other Democrats. But I think Obama has -- President Obama has got some strong cards to deal. I hope he makes a great choice for the court.

KING: Chairman Leahy, take me behind the curtain. You know, I'm getting e-mails and phone calls from African-American groups, saying first black president, he should pick an African-American. I'm getting phone calls and emails from Latino groups saying he got our votes, he owes us. The women's groups say he owes us. What is it like? What kind of pressure are you facing and is he facing right now?

LEAHY: John, I'm getting some of the same. You and I talked before we went on the air about the fact that Marcelle and I drove to Vermont on Friday, which is something we do about once a year, instead of flying, and thought it would be a nice quiet time. It was like a phone booth in our car all the way up with all these different groups, everybody else calling about who should be there.

I want the president to pick somebody for all of the American people. In the past few years, the court, many members of the court have seemed to be more and more isolated from real Americans, real people. I'd like to see somebody -- I'd like to see an appointment of somebody who has real life experiences, not just within a judicial monastery, but somebody who can reflect the feelings of real Americans.

KING: I'll end this. A short time we have left, I want to switch to some other subjects quickly. Senator Shelby, you're the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee. The administration in the week ahead will release the results on these so-called stress tests on America's banks. Are we going to learn that more of our banks are in trouble of failing? And Senator Shelby, do you believe more taxpayer money will be requested by the administration to help keep them afloat?

SHELBY: John, I don't know what we're totally going to learn come -- I believe it's Thursday, from the stress test. But I think sooner or later, we're going to learn a lot. Some banks are going to come out of the stress test looking strong. Others are going to need more capital. And if they can access that capital, privately, that's the best way. We'll -- the banks that are lacking in capital and don't meet this test, I think there will be a push to put more capital in them.

That's not my way of doing business. I think we should let the ordinary course of events happen. When banks are insolvent, they should close them, whether they're large or small.

KING: Senator Leahy, in the Boston Globe today, in an op-ed piece, you continue your effort to get what you call a commission of inquiry to look back into the practices, the detainee interrogation practices, what you call the torture committed during the Bush administration.

You write this about the Justice Department memos that President Obama has released so far. "These memoranda seem calculated to provide legal cover, a legal free pass for these unlawful policies. The Justice Department was apparently being used to immunize government officials to conduct torture by defining it down and building in legal loopholes."

Essentially, your case that the department that was built to uphold the law was helping people break the law is the case you make. Senator Feinstein has said the Intelligence Committee will investigate this. The White House has said that is fine with them. Leave it in the Intelligence Committee. Why isn't that good enough?

LEAHY: What I'm saying is instead of having four or five committees in the Senate and four or five committees in the House do it, why not have one nonpartisan or bipartisan commission do it all at once, get all the answers? Sort of like what we did after 9/11. We did the same thing after some of the savings and loan problems, things of that nature. And have all of the answers. Just so that nobody is tempted to repeat this, nobody is attempting to set up an idea that certain people in our government are above the law, that the law doesn't apply to everyone. That's what I want.

But if we don't have such a commission, then we will have the Intelligence Committee and we will have the Judiciary Committee and we will have the Armed Service Committee and others each do pieces of it, but that in some ways is like, you know, the committee of blindfolded people who are trying to describe an elephant, each having just part of the elephant.

KING: Interesting way to put it.

Senator Shelby, it was 15 years ago -- it's hard for me to believe because I remember it like yesterday -- you were a Democrat who switched over to the Republican Party. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party to go to the Democrat Party this last week. I just want -- do you have any advice for Senator Specter? Just your thoughts on what it's like to be caucusing with one group on Monday and the other guys on Tuesday? SHELBY: Well, it's a good experience from the standpoint of serving in both caucuses. You have friends in both.

Arlen Specter is a friend of mine. I differ with him on a lot of issues, but I wish him the best. I wish he hadn't left the caucus, but he did. Perhaps there's somebody over there, I don't know who he is, I hope (ph) it will be Leahy, that can rejoin us and have an equilibrium.

KING: Senator Shelby in New York, Chairman Leahy in Burlington, Vermont this morning. Gentlemen, thank you both.

SHELBY: Thank you, John.

LEAHY: Thank you. Good to be with you.

KING: Big losses in 2006 and 2008, and now, as you just heard, a big defection in 2009. Up next, two leaders of a new effort to rebuild the Republican image and to prove to voters the president is wrong to label the GOP the party of no. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the House Republican Whip Eric Cantor in an exclusive conversation about what needs to change for their party to get back in the win column. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: It's time for us to listen first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit, to not be nostalgic about the past because, you know, things do ebb and flow.


KING: That was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of the former president. Jeb Bush speaking yesterday at the first meeting of the National Council for a New America. It's a new effort by some high-powered Republicans to repair the Republican brand.

We'll show you now, we'll go to the wall to show you just how daunting a task it is. Partisan breakdowns here of the House, the Senate, and the governors around the country. And let's play.

We begin with 1992, look at this here, only 167. Remember these numbers, 167 in the House, 44 in the Senate, 20 at the statehouse level. The Democrats with big edges here, but now we have the big Republican revolution of 1994.

Look how dramatically this changed. Two hundred and thirty now. A majority in the House for the Republicans, a majority in the Senate, some gains at the state level.

But as we fast forward now to George W. Bush's election in 2000, roughly parity, the Republican majority shrinks a little, exact parity in the Senate, 50/50. Republicans do though make big gains at the statehouse level here as George W. Bush wins.

But here is where we are today in 2009, a dramatic swing back for the Democrats, 257 to just 178 in the House. Fifty-seven, that number is going to grow. Just 40 now in the Senate. You have 28 Democratic governors, 22 Republican governors.

So as you can see for the Republicans, it is a daunting task. That's why grim, grim the big word, the current outlook, that is where we began our conversation, how do you deal with the grim outlook with two of this group's new leaders?

Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Eric Cantor.


KING: I just want to start with the basic question. And, Governor, to you first, why? Why is the Republican Party in trouble?

ROMNEY: Well, I don't know that the party is in trouble but we sure have had some setbacks. There's no question but that the last couple of election cycles were not good to us.

In some respects we were playing the same game in Washington that the other party was playing, which is spending too much money, creating a real question about the future of America's prosperity by virtue of that overspending. And I think as a result of that, people are saying, hey, we want to change.

KING: And when Governor Romney makes that point that Republicans in Washington got caught up in all of the spending, you're a Republican in the Washington, you're the number two in the House Republican leadership. Is it George W. Bush's fault or is it also Eric Cantor's fault?

CANTOR: Listen, John, I think there is a lot of blame to go around. And what we're trying to do here today is kick off a series of town hall forums so that we can get back to listening to the people.

KING: If you ask the American people about the president's economic approach, about two-thirds say they support it and they back him. Is that a communications problem on your part or is it that they support his policies?

CANTOR: You know, I think a large part is we don't know where those policies are going to end up. There is so much uncertainty right now. There are so many challenges economically to working families, to small businesses.

People can't get credit anymore. Their lines of credit are being cut. People are being laid off. Fifteen people a minute are losing their job in this country. So the economic realities on the ground are a lot different than maybe what a certain question in a poll may be asking.

ROMNEY: I think if you ask the American people, do you think it's a good idea for us to borrow $1.9 trillion more than we take in? Do you think that's a good idea? I think they would say no.

I think if you ask the American people, do you think the president's plan, which would create a doubling in the multi-trillions of dollars of our national debt, do you think that's a good idea? Do you support that? I think they would say no.

So part of our job is communicating just exactly what it is the president is proposing and making sure they understand there is a better way with a brighter future.

KING: And as you try to learn about how to have a better platform and better communications in the next election, give me each of your assessment of the last one. Barack Obama won big in the suburbs. It used to be Republican territory. Won big in the suburbs. Took two-thirds of the Latino vote. Was that because voters were mad at George W. Bush and maybe didn't see enough in John McCain or was it because they turned the page and looked at the competing proposals and said, I want this guy and not those guys?

ROMNEY: I frankly believe that much of what happened in the last election revolved around the fact that the economy fell apart at the time we were, if you will, holding the hot potato. Republicans and Democrats have been playing this game, passing the hot the potato, spending money like there was no tomorrow.

And the economy came crashing down while our party was holding the hot potato. And people said, hey, it's time for something else but I think if they took a good, hard look at what the -- something else is planning on doing with regards to the massive borrowing, they are going to say, that is probably not the right thing for America's future.

I'm concerned that what the president is doing to our overall economy is what the government did to housing, which is spend too much and borrow too much, create a bubble, and that bubble ultimately collapses.

KING: Was it bad timing or was it bad choices?

CANTOR: Listen, I don't think there is any single reason why you can explain the election in November. First of all, could we have done better in Washington? Absolutely. I mean, could we have been more centered on our thoughts of fiscal sanity in Washington? Absolutely.

Did the American public tire of the Iraq War? You had better believe it. Even though we had our men area women were fighting every day for our freedom, the public's patience was wearing thin because no one likes to be at war.

And as the governor says, we had a collapse in our financial markets 30 days before the election. So there was a lot of fear, and a lot of desire to say, hey, we want to put these bad times behind us.

But, ultimately, the future is about trying to be relevant in terms of what we're talking about, the policy prescriptions that we are going to propose to make sure that they make a difference.

And it's not that the Republicans need to change, to become like Democrats. We know the principles upon which our party is founded. They are the principles of free markets, of the rights of the individuals, of the faith in individuals, the faith in God, the ability for people to stand up on their own and reach for that opportunity.

KING: And as you begin this listing effort, there are others in the party having the same debate. And I want to start with one piece of news this week, was when Senator Specter decided he was going to switch to the Democratic Party. There is no doubt, and there should be no doubt, that he switched because he thought he was going to lose a Republican primary. It was a survival decision. He even concedes that.

But there are some who say, you know, here's a moderate Republican who comes from that area in the Philadelphia suburbs that is critical to winning the big state of Pennsylvania. Tom Davis, the former congressman from this area, calls it a devastating blow that sends a bad signal of ideological intolerance to moderate white collar voters. Does it do that? ROMNEY: No, not at all. This was entirely a political calculation on the part of Senator Specter. He has every right to do that. He was a Democrat originally. He became a Republican. He has gone back to being a Democrat. It will help him politically. And, you know, that's fine.

Our party is the big tent party.

ROMNEY: We have folks of different perspectives. We've always been that way. We've always had different coalitions within the Republican Party. We'll continue to have that.

You know, this last election, we didn't win, but we didn't lose by an enormous amount. And we just need to make sure that we communicate our message effectively and draw those folks who watch with interest back to voting for us.

KING: As you go forward on this effort, you know even -- you find it on Capitol Hill among Republicans. There are some who say "Good riddance, Senator Specter. The Republican Party should move forward, going back to a conservative base that is low taxes, less spending, anti-abortion, against same-sex marriage, more ideological purity. And if he doesn't feel comfortable, get rid of him."

And there are others who say that is a recipe for disaster, among them Olympia Snowe. You know her, the senator from Maine. She says, "Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities. Indeed it was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash."

Who's right, those who say smaller is OK, as long as it's pure or those who say that's the recipe for disaster?

CANTOR: You know, John, I think it's a false choice. I think what we really need to do is look to the future. And if you look at Pennsylvania, it's indicative of the challenges that our party faces in the Northeast and New England, no question.

So we've got to go out and, again, reconnect and make sure that our policy prescriptions are relevant to the challenges that people in the Northeast are facing, to the challenges that educated, affluent families are facing, as well as those much more challenged in the inner cities and rural areas of our country.

There is a common theme in this country and that is opportunity. That's what these forums are going to be about, about listening to how we tap into the real challenges and how we allow opportunity to flourish again.

KING: When we come back, we'll ask our two guests how Republicans should deal with the thorny issues of immigration, health care, and same-sex marriage.

Much more of our conversation when "State of the Union" returns.


KING: Back, now, to our conversation about how to rebuild the Republican Party, with the House Republican whip, Eric Cantor and the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney.

Let's go through some of the issues, in closing, that you raised. And let's start -- you went through the spending issues pretty well. If you want to come back to them, please do. But let's start with the immigration debate.

In the last campaign, you sparred with John McCain, who ended up winning the nomination, quite a bit, saying, you know, he was wrong on this path to citizenship or path to status, that people should get in the back of the line.

That debate's about to come up again. There are many, Governor Romney, who say, let's just pass that bill, you know, something like McCain, Kennedy, Bush; let's get it over with; let's get it done. The Chamber of Commerce says they want it. Put that behind you; it will help you, rebuilding among Latinos. What would you do?

ROMNEY: I have my own views about what I think that bill ought to look like. It happens to be consistent with what I said during the campaign.

I'm not going to impose, necessarily, that, on Eric Cantor, on anybody else. We can all talk about our views. But we should deal with the immigration issues right now. This is a high priority, urgent issue. And it's an issue that can also be demagogued, and it was demagogued -- probably on both sides of the aisle, during the last election. And I think that's a mistake.

I think we should deal with this in a compassionate and concerned way. We are a party that welcomes legal immigration. We want legal immigration. It's been a great source of our nation's vitality. Illegal immigration, we oppose and we're going to end. And we ought to deal with that on an accelerated time frame.

KING: Health care is another big issue that's going to coming up this year. You got beat up in the campaign, a little bit, by fellow conservatives who said, you know, your approach had too big of a government role. Is the Massachusetts approach that was passed under Governor Romney -- is that a good model for the nation?

ROMNEY: Well, I think so.


But I'm not going to impose, necessarily, my view on the National Council for a New America. We're going to exchange ideas, listen to people. I'll put forward my own perspectives. My own view is pretty straightforward, and that is that we can get Americans insured. We can get virtually every American insured with health insurance without having to have government take over health insurance. KING: The president's going to try to move his plan while you're having this national conversation. And he has put in place the rules that will probably allow him to do it. Is he going to get his way on health care?

CANTOR: This issue of health care is way too big to be dominated or monopolized by one party. This applies to Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals alike. This is health care. This is everyone.

So I do think that it is a nuclear option. The president said to me he doesn't want to use that, but nor does he want to give us, really, any leverage. He said he doesn't want the Republicans to have veto power. I'm hopeful that that means we can work together. Obviously, the first 100 days, we have seen that bipartisanship and cooperation can be improved upon.

KING: Since the last election, a number of states have moved ahead with same-sex marriage proposals. Some have done it legislatively. Some have done it in other ways. Some has happened through the courts, which I know both of you think is the wrong way to do anything, whether it's same-sex marriage or anything else.

But, if, at the end of this conversation, you come to the conclusion that the consensus of the people you're talking to is to agree what Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager, said, you know, the Republicans are viewed as intolerant because we want constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

If, at the end of this conversation, you think the consensus is, leave it to the states, which was Dick Cheney's position. That was Tom DeLay's positions, be federalist and let state-by-state make these decisions. Are you both willing to support that?

ROMNEY: My view I've laid out before, which is you really can't have different marriage provisions in different states and then expect people to be able to move around the nation and have different rights in different states.

Marriage is a matter of national consequence. It's a -- it's a status. It's not an activity. And as a result, there should be a national standard. And my own view is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.

KING: And so if five or 10 states go that way, do you need to have a constitutional amendment, a national referendum? How do you deal with it?

CANTOR: I think Mitt has made the point that there are federal implications; there are national implications to what one state does, in terms of the status of a married person in another state.

I share Mitt's views. I believe in conditional marriage between a man and a woman. It's been that way thousands of years. And I believe that most of the American people, by far, apply or adhere to that principle. So I would continue to support the ability for us to say that's what a marriage means in America.

KING: As you go into this effort, you have an array of people. KING: Governor Romney, Governor Bush, who was here today, Senator McCain, Governor Jindal, Governor Barbour. It's an impressive group. You're going to travel the country and you're going to listen.

As you launch this effort, anyone who picks up "Time" magazine this week and sees the 100 most influential people, will see two Republicans in that magazine. They'll see Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. Is that helpful, hurtful, indifferent?

CANTOR: You know, they are two individuals that have a lot of ideas, and our party should be about ideas. That's what this effort is about and the National Council for a New America, and that is what they're about. So I don't think any of us should have any monopoly on the ideas. And I know that there are some who like to make it all about personalities, but it's about ideas. It's about how we take this country forward.

ROMNEY: John, I'd like to have a lot more influential Republicans. I think there are a lot more influential Republicans than that would suggest. But was that the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people? I'm not sure. If it's the most beautiful, I understand. We're not real cute.

KING: Some Republicans when they talk of President Obama say, you know, he blocks the sun at the moment. He is the dominant figure in American politics. Everybody learns from the opposition. What are you learning from him?

ROMNEY: Oh, he's a very effective speaker. He's been able to communicate extraordinarily well with the American people, not just through his addresses, but also through the townhall process. He continues to campaign, if you will, even though he won. He is out doing the things he did before the election. He brought Axelrod into the White House.

You know, when George Bush brought Karl Rove in, there were all sorts of fireworks about, wow, you got a political guy in? Well, I guess we've gotten used to that. He's brought in a political guy that helps manage the communication. It's worked extremely well. Communicating is a big part of leading a nation. I think he's done that -- I think he's done that well.

But at the same time, I think he's making some very serious errors. I think, if you will, abrogating his responsibility for the stimulus and passing it along to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid was a mistake, and that's going to come back to haunt him. And I think the budget he has put forward really sows the seeds of economic distress down the road, which will also be a problem for him.

KING: What about you?

CANTOR: Listen, I agree. President Obama is a great communicator. We understand that. He's also been very adept at adopting the technology of today to access the youth vote, and the younger population in this country. That's the future, and I believe we've got a lot to learn. The Republican Party can't keep doing things the way it always has in terms of technology. And as you are beginning to see, we have a Web site here with this group called, that we are actively trying to engage in a much broader discussion with a much more diverse population in this country.

KING: Is he entitled for his pick to the Supreme Court? He won the election. Or are there certain lines that you would draw where you say the Republicans should engage in full combat?

CANTOR: There is no question that this is a national issue. This should not be a decision that the people don't have some impact on. We know it is a nomination by the president and a confirmation by the Senate. And it is very important for all of us to understand who the nominee is, what that nominee has done on the bench, and the impact that nominee has had on people's lives.

KING: But you can't stop him from nominating someone who might be pro-choice? You can't stop him from nominating someone who might be outside of your views on marriage. So how do you draw the line? If a Republican senator called you and said, you know, advice, should I be for or against? Where is the line?

ROMNEY: Well, what you want to see is the president choose someone of unquestioned intellectual capacity that's made important and critical decisions in the past well, and a person who believes in following the law, who respects the fundamental process that's been outlined in the Constitution of how laws are created. You do not want to have him select somebody who believes that they, once they become a judge and are going to be in that position for the rest of their life, can do anything they want, can create law from the bench. That's what you don't want to see.

And I doubt that Barack Obama is going to put forward the same nominee that either Congressman Cantor or I would put forward, and elections have consequence. He'll put forward someone different from that. But the key thing and the place where I think we draw the line is, is this an individual who will follow the Constitution and the law, or is this an individual who believes in making the law? And if it's the latter, I think we should stand up and scream loud and hard.

KING: Our thanks to Congressman Cantor and Governor Romney for that conversation. Up next, two veteran Washington insiders discuss the GOP's comeback strategy and the brewing Supreme Court confirmation battle. Joe Lockhart and Susan Molinari when "State of the Union" returns.


KING: I'm John King. And this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are some stories breaking this Sunday morning.

Jack Kemp, former Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate, died Saturday after a battle with cancer. Former President George Bush said Kemp will be remembered for significant contributions to the Reagan revolution and his steadfast dedication to conservative principles. Jack Kemp was 73. Pigs on a farm in Canada under quarantine after testing positive for the H1N1 flu. It's the first confirmed case of pigs inflicted with this new flu strain. Officials say the animals likely caught the virus from a farmer who became ill after returning home from Mexico. Health officials stress there are no food safety concerns since you can't catch the flu from eating pork. There are now 787 confirmed cases of swine flu in humans in 17 countries.

A frantic search under way for possible survivors after a tropical storm triggered massive landslides and flooding in the Philippines. At least 11 people were killed, most of the victims were buried by piles of mud and debris as they slept in their homes, nine people are missing.

That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

Live picture of the White House there on the first Sunday of May. It has been quite a week in politics. A lot to talk about. Much of it focused on that building on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With us former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart and former Republican Congresswoman Susan Molinari.

Thanks for coming in this morning.

MOLINARI: Good morning.

LOCKHART: Good morning.

KING: It is a big week. Let's start with we just heard Eric Cantor and Mitt Romney talk about their effort to re-brand your party. The Republican Party, if you look at it now, compared to say just after the 1994 elections...

MOLINARI: I was watching all of those really depressing charts.


KING: You were watching all of those really depressing charts and numbers.


KING: It is striking. And I want to get your sense, as one someone who served in the Congress and as someone who is a rarity, you are a Republican from New York State, if you look back when you served in the Congress for the number of...

MOLINARI: We had 19 members in New York, 13 Republican members when we were in minority as well as a pretty good handful in New Jersey, Connecticut, governors in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut.

Yes, the Northeast is a situation that is of grave concern to me. And I was also there before we took the that majority and left when we were in the majority. So I really applaud Congressman Cantor for what he is doing, I think bringing the conversation to the American people. The first thing -- you know, the first step is to admit we have a problem.

And I think, you know, Eric has really done this by bringing together national leaders and kind of taking it on the road and sort of sometimes working with the media and working in spite of the media, and talking about the issues from their perspective in terms of what we're doing right as a country and what we need to do better.

And admitting that the Republican Party has done some things that need correcting and course correcting. So I applaud him for creating this vehicle around which Republicans, hopefully, throughout this nation and yes, in the Northeast will be able to rally.

KING: If talk to them and listen closely, you get the sense that, yes, they concede there are problems, no doubt about it, but they also, think, look, it was Bush, it was the collapse of the economy, it was fatigue at the Iraq War and that John McCain, love him or don't love him, just wasn't the best communicator, not the right guy in that election campaign.

And they seem to think the further you get away from George W. Bush and the more people digest Barack Obama, they will be OK.

LOCKHART: You know, I think that they are doing the stagecraft right. I was struck by the fact that they took their ties off and they went to a nice casual place and they're doing town meetings and that is all great.

They don't recognize the problem. And the problem is -- and Susan is right, the Northeast, the place where there was the moderate bastion of the Republican Party used to be populated with Republicans (INAUDIBLE).

I grew up in a suburban town with a Republican member of Congress from New York State. They -- what they miss is that the party has moved so far to the right and is so captive now to the ideologues on the right that the country has moved away from them.

And taking your tie off and going, having a national conversation is not going to solve the problem until you realize the party, to be successful, has to move back to the center. And there is no recognition, if you listen closely to what they said, that they think they have a policy or a substance problem. It's exactly what they have.

MOLINARI: If I can just disagree, respectfully. The Republican Party hasn't changed in terms of what our message has been and what we stood for and sort of those three legs of the stool.

What happened is for a very long time, our economic policies in terms of no taxes, supply side, and paying tribute to our dear friend Jack Kemp who was so good at espousing those issues, staying strong on defense and the war on terror, those are things we kind of took for granted as a country because things were going well.

We had Bush tax cuts. We had the economy booming. We were winning the war on terror, if you will, if we're allowed to use that phrase, politically correct, anymore. You know, things were OK.

So the fundamental shift went to focus on those areas upon which sometimes there is disagreement within both political parties. I think President Obama is going to give us an opportunity to go back to the Northeast to a lot of people who believed that government shouldn't own a significant portion of the private sector, who believe that we need to be a little more diligent in making sure that we keep our attention up on the war on terror.

So I think that we're going to be able to redefine ourselves by those three pillars again.

KING: And Congressman Cantor, Governor Romney, Governor Jeb Bush was at that forum as well. He just couldn't stop and talk with us. They say, look, we need to make this about policy for a year or two. Get close to the elections, then we'll get all of the personalities involved.

But -- and they blame us for that to a degree. They say, the media wants to focus on personalities. But it's not just us, I want to show some video, Governor Palin, who was your vice presidential nominee in the last election, continues to give interviews.

And she is out here. This is with "American Chopper." Joe, you're a subscriber to "American Chopper," I am sure.



MOLINARI: I don't even know what that is.

KING: And as you see here, when the picture comes back, that's everybody's favorite, she is leaning on a big bear rug that she has over her sofa in there. Is it -- let me just ask you the question. Is someone from the Northeast, a woman, your party, killed in the suburbs? The vote among suburban women, Sarah Palin a help or hurt?

MOLINARI: I think -- look, I think Sarah Palin does help. I think having a woman out there helps. I think she took a really bad rap from the media and made some strategic mistakes in the campaign in the way they handled her.

She is not the only face of the Republican Party. I do think we need to have some more women who are out there not in place of Sarah Palin, but to -- you know, we need more women out there to assist Sarah Palin and the Republican Party effort.

I mean, look at, we were the party of Governor Whitman, of Nancy Johnson, of Marge Roukema. I mean, there were some really good strong top Republican women who were there who helped to provide that balance.

And I think the balance is what the Republican Party does need to look for. And I think when we get -- because I do think policies are important, but so are personalities. We have to admit it. We're in the business of politics and communications. You know, personalities are important. And I do think that we need a few more messengers to carry the Republican Party message.

KING: I want to turn your attention. Unless you urgently need to get in on this -- on Sarah Palin, I want to turn your attention, as a guy who worked in the White House at a time when the incoming is coming, foreign, domestic, and everything else, this president came into office pretty busy. Now on top of that, gets to make a rare choice...


KING: ... and a choice presidents covet, to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court. I want you to listen to the president first explaining his full plate.


OBAMA: A typical president, I think, has two or three big problems. We've got seven or eight big problems.


KING: And that was before he learned that Justice Souter was stepping down.

Joe Lockhart, when you're inside the White House and you have an economy in trouble, you have all of these challenges overseas, now you have a Supreme Court vacancy.

LOCKHART: Well, one of the things you learn is if you have a choice of doing the difficult issues or talking about Sarah Palin, you take Sarah Palin every time, so this...

(LAUGHTER) LOCKHART: Hey listen, I think he's right. He has got a full plate. But on this one, I actually think he's going to enjoy this. I get -- you know, if you know a little bit about his background, as, you know, some people were dreaming, you know, in their teens, in their 20s about, you know, going to Broadway or being a professional athlete, Obama has been interested in the Supreme Court for a long time.

And I actually think he'll enjoy this. I don't think this is an extra burden. And I think, you know, politics, the Supreme Court is about picking these justices for life but politics are a big part of it.

The politics are good for Obama. He's a pragmatist. We expect him to pick a pragmatist, someone who probably sends a message, whether it's gender or ethnicity and, you know, you're looking at a pretty good Senate right now.

So I think at the end of the day, this will not quite be the fight. There is a potential to make a mistake but these guys are pretty careful. I don't expect that. KING: We're about out of time. But as the woman sitting at the table, and there's only one woman on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is fighting cancer courageously, but is not a young woman, should he pick a woman?

MOLINARI: I answer as a mother of two daughters when I say yes. I know that there are very smart, very capable women out there, and I think that does send an important signal to our daughters for the future.

KING: Susan Molinari, Joe Lockhart, thanks for coming in this morning.

And let's take a quick look at what is still ahead. Up next, we will take you to the government's Washington war room for the H1N1 flu virus. The World Health Organization says over 780 confirmed H1N1 cases in 780 countries. We'll be right back.


KING: As we debated where to travel this week, we decided sometimes it's best to stay right here at home because some of the answers are here in Washington. The World Health Organization says there are over 780 confirmed H1N1 cases now in 17 countries. This flu strain is believed to have started in Mexico.

Well, let's go to the map here, we'll show you how it has developed in the United States as we play it out. You watch the United States here. And it was last Sunday, one week ago, we learned about first wave of cases.

Then it has spread over the course of the past seven days and this is where we are on this Sunday morning right here, 160 cases confirmed in the United States in 21 states.

So, we decided to go behind the door, limited access, to visit the place where the government takes all of the information it is getting on the H1N1 flu virus and decides what it needs to do.


KING (voice-over): In government jargon, this is the SOC, the Secretary's Operations Center, the Washington war room for the fight against the H1N1 flu virus. The daily battle plan one of the many displays in the Department of Health and Human Services high-tech video wall.

REAR ADM. CRAIG VANDERWAGEN, ASST. SECY., PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE: One can look at this as a war against disease. And we have a large battle space that is involved, our population throughout the country now. It's an international event, so it's a big battle.

KING: And the battle Admiral Craig Vanderwagen of the Public Health Service expects to turn more urgent in the week ahead, upgraded, he bets, to a top-scale international pandemic. VANDERWAGEN: Well, the World Health Organization will probably in the next few days say that we have reached their phase six. What that means is that geographically now we have a dispersed transmissible disease. Doesn't say anything about the severity, but it says we have a worldwide event.

KING: And Admiral Vanderwagen projects most states here at home will eventually be shaded as well. VANDERWAGEN: The transmission rates right now appear to be fairly brisk, which, and fortunately, they're mild.

KING (on camera): Have you had a piece of paper cross your desk that says this will be the number -- this is our guess at what this number will be two weeks from now?

VANDERWAGEN: And there are two or three different modelers. We have government modelers, but we also look to the academic world for competing models because they're all in this together.

KING (voice-over): He won't share the numbers. He says the projections in these still-early days are unreliable. But tracking is the key to solid projections. Closing schools is a local decision. This map allows federal officials to keep track.

And this one tracks shipments of antiviral drugs and other supplies to states in need. Green signifies delivery complete. Blue means still en route.

VANDERWAGEN: Well, we know that there are a half dozen states that were unable to make their purchases for anti-virals. So we're watching those states very closely.

KING: The setup here is a lesson learned from government failures responding to Hurricane Katrina. Every federal agency involved in the H1N1 response has a seat here, as well as outside partners like the Red Cross.

One week into the crisis, the sense here is the government's response has been a success so far. One challenge, though, is making the case all of this is necessary. In an average year, some 36,000 people in the United States die from the seasonal flu. But there is no war room to combat that.

VANDERWAGEN: This is a novel human virus. We have never seen it before. Therefore, immune systems are not geared to manage this very well at this point. Therefore, it could be very unpredictable.

The second thing is you may be aware that people who died in Mexico were frequently young people between 25 and 44. Now, the death pattern in the seasonal flu are those people at the -- either ends of the age spectrum whose immune systems don't work very well, very small infants or very elderly people.

So this is a very different potential event where young people are affected. And since we don't know enough about this very new virus to be able to tell for sure what it's going to do, we have to act very aggressively to try and deal with it.


KING: Our thanks to Admiral Vanderwagen for the close-up view there of the war room at HHS. And we want to say good-bye now to our international audience for this hour. But coming up for our viewers here in the United States, Howie Kurtz talks about some interesting revelations in the new book by Elizabeth Edwards.


KING: I'm John King and here's what is ahead on our STATE OF THE UNION report for this Sunday, May 3rd.

Republican Arlen Specter switches party, putting the Democrats only vote from a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Did the press treat it as a victory or a betrayal? Leading off the "RELIABLE SOURCES" hour of our program, Howie Kurtz looks at media bias with three top political observers.

The H1N1 flu outbreak, are scary headlines distorting a deadly serious story. Two medical reporters separate fact from fiction.

And at the top of the hour we'll get the very latest on the spread of the H1N1 virus. Two cabinet secretaries and the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control will be right here to take your phone calls live, all ahead on this hour of STATE OF THE UNION.

Time now, as always, to turn things over to Howard Kurtz and his "RELIABLE SOURCES."