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Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf; Former North Korean Captive Speaks Out; Will Ferguson Police Chief Step Down?; Friend: Ferguson Police Chief Rethinking Future; The Race That Could Unleash Chaos; Tight Races Leave Senate Control in Doubt

Aired October 31, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: North Korean nightmare. An American man held captive by the Kim Jong-un regime for almost six months speaks out for the first time since his surprise release. What really prompted Kim Jong-un to set him free?

Uncertain future. The Ferguson, Missouri police chief is said to be rethinking remarks he made to CNN only 24 hours ago, when he insisted he will not step down. Is he now ready to resign over the fallout from the Michael Brown shooting?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we're following the break news, the deadly crash of a Virgin Galactic spaceship in the California desert. It was just months away from beginning commercial service with dozens and dozens of celebrity passengers scheduled to be among the first space tourists.

We're also following developments over at the Pentagon where plans are now being drawn up to possibly end U.S. military advisers into Iraq's Anbar province, 80 percent of which is under ISIS control right now.

We're covering those stories and much more this hour with our correspondents and our guests, including the State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf.

Let's begin with the breaking news.

CNN's Tom Foreman has details of that Virgin spaceship disaster.

Tom, what is the latest you're getting?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this spacecraft is able to withstand extraordinary forces to do the things it does as it flies at supersonic speeds. Yet right now, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are trying to figure out how something went cataclysmically wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN (voice-over): Ground control lost contact with the

experimental spacecraft around 10:00 Pacific time. The $500 million rocket-powered craft could seat six passengers. But during this test flight, only two pilots were on board. The spaceship is carried into flight beneath an airplane.

And that launch vehicle returned to the ground safely, but not the spacecraft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a huge explosion. It didn't occur -- I didn't see it.

FOREMAN: The company says the mission was going as planned, and even though they were trying a new rocket fuel mix, they had no signs of trouble until the apparently massive failure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're flying a rocket motor today that had been thoroughly tested on the ground and had been through a qualification series. And of course, we expected no anomalies with the motor.

FOREMAN: What went wrong is anyone's guess. The ship is 60 feet long and designed to fly 62 miles above the Earth. And the wreckage in the Mojave Desert attests to the ferocity of the explosion. A crumpled parachute could be seen on the ground, but still authorities say one pilot was killed and the other seriously injured.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a large area. The aircraft is in several different pieces. We found one person who had -- obviously was deceased immediately. The other was transported to A.V. hospital. And I do not have the condition. When left here, it appeared to be major injuries, but we don't know if that's -- really what that means yet.

FOREMAN: It's a far cry from the ambitious hopes Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson expressed earlier this year.

RICHARD BRANSON, CHAIRMAN & CEO, VIRGIN GROUP: Two hundred of the best engineers and technicians building them. Now we're beginning the final stages of test flights in flight. By the end of this year, we will have actually gone into space.

FOREMAN: Instead, it's another blow to the idea of privatized space travel and it comes only days after a spectacular launch pad explosion in Virginia, a blast that involved a spacecraft, once again, manufactured by a private company.


FOREMAN: Richard Branson tweeted his thoughts to all the people at the companies who are working on this who knew the people involved. "Thanks for all of your messages of support," he said. "I'm flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team."

This is an enormous, enormous event and a very, very bad week for the private space travel industry, Wolf. BLITZER: What a setback this is. Thanks very much, Tom Foreman.

Let's get some more now on the breaking news.

Joining us, our CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest, our CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

It's amazing, Miles, when you think about it. On Wednesday, this disaster, this rocket explosion in Virginia. Now what's going on in California with this Virgin Galactic disaster. What a huge setback for the private space program.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, as I said all week since this previous accident, this is not routine.

It remains on the edge of our capabilities, and it is very intolerant of even the smallest mistakes or errors or problems. That's what we're seeing here right now. This is a test program that had been troubled by a motor that wasn't delivering the goods. They switched the fuel and some of the plumbing along with that. And that will be a big focus of the investigation.

BLITZER: As you know, Richard, Virgin Galactic had been hoping to start offering these commercial spaceflights by the end of the year, coming year. Certainly in 2015, they were hoping to get some of these celebrities on board, maybe even at the end of this year. Does an accident of this magnitude seriously set all of that back?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, without any shadow of doubt.

I don't think it will put them out of business. I think if you listen to what the CEO of Virgin Galactic said today, he said space is hard. Following up on what Miles was saying, the future rests on hard days like this.

But Richard Branson, who is in charge, who started it all up, has had setbacks before when he was trying to fly around the world on a balloon. So, Wolf, yes, it will certainly put it back. Investors, those people who bought tickets, over $250,000, some of them may want their money back. But I don't for a moment think that it ends the race, it ends the goal. But it certainly turns the clock back.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, Miles, a lot of celebrities, Tom Hanks, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, among so many others, they already paid in and they wanted to go on this little space junket, if you will. But a lot of them are going to say, you know what, this is not so safe.

O'BRIEN: Clearly, there will be some fallout. There are 700 people on the list. It's an impressive list, and if I had the scratch, I probably would have been on it myself.

But the point is, some people will probably say maybe not, but there are a lot of people who are -- this is all about pushing the envelope quite literally, and there is risk inherent and there's no secret this is a risky endeavor and going to space remains not easy.

BLITZER: Two major disasters for the private space business, if you will, Richard, in three days, this is awful, isn't it?

QUEST: It is awful. And it will cause a rethink about the various -- not so much the regulation, because you have got to look for systemic reasons why these things go wrong.

You have to look at, was it a failure of regulation, was it a failure of the authorities to actually monitor or the companies or whatever? You can't just take them in total isolation. But, Wolf, it will not bring an end to the private space industry. That's where the money is. That's where, to some extent, governments can't fund it like they used to. So the private industry is here to stay when it comes to space. The question is how it's monitored, regulated, and then enforced.

BLITZER: Miles, you want to weigh in?

O'BRIEN: I would like to say this, Wolf. We just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the X Prize, which were the origins of this project, this SpaceShipOne.

This has been a long delayed program and there's been growing, increasing pressure on SpaceShipTwo, on Virgin Galactic to deliver a paying flight. Whenever you see these accidents, whether it's Columbia or Challenger, you have to ask yourself, was there too much schedule pressure? Was the team under pressure to fly sooner than they were ready to? And that's something we have to look at.

BLITZER: Richard, I interviewed Sir Richard Branson about this program back in 2009. He was so hopeful. Listen to this little clip.


BRANSON: The spaceship will start its test in December, and will go and those tests will carry on over the next 18 months. And then we will start taking people into space, and it's the start I think of a whole new space era.

BLITZER: You expect -- how much is this going to cost somebody who wants to go for a ride let's say two, or three or four years in space? Any idea?


BRANSON: Initially, it will be $200,000.

BLITZER: For how long of a rid would that be?

BRANSON: The whole experience is a three-hour experience. So, it's a suborbital space trip.


BLITZER: He was so hopeful at that time, but clearly not anticipating a disaster that occurred in the past few hours, Richard.

QUEST: No, not at all. But, look, over the years, I have interviewed Sir Richard dozens of times. There is an irreplaceable optimism about him.

But that's the same optimism that allowed him to start Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, all the various other Virgin properties that he has, and to some extent, to get Virgin Galactic to the position it's in today. Miles raises a strong and very good point, which is, were there too many commercial pressures to move forward?

But in terms of Richard Branson, a man who has lost friends through aviation accidents, was nearly killed himself several times, he said he would go up on the first flight with his family. I have known Richard and I have interviewed him many times. He's not a fool. He is not an unnecessary risk taker. He will be having cause for pause for thought about the way forward with Virgin Galactic tonight.

BLITZER: He's a very creative and courageous kind of guy, there's no doubt about that, Miles, but the question is, are people going to pay to go on this aircraft, if you will, this spacecraft, given what happened today?

O'BRIEN: Yes. A lot depends on what comes out of this, and whether we find the team was somehow as we say pressured to move quickly. Was there a fundamental design problem?

And the fact of the matter is, after almost 10 years of trying to perfect one type of motor, they're moving into a different fuel, a different motor, different design, maybe the can needs to be kicked way down the road here. And that's a big disappointment for those of us who like the idea of regular people going to space.

BLITZER: The Virgin Galactic CEO, George Whitesides, said space is hard. Today is a tough day.

Miles O'Brien, Richard Quest, guys, thanks very, very much.

Just ahead, U.S. military advisers possibly being deployed to ISIS territory in Iraq. We're learning new details of planning under way right now over at the Pentagon. We will talk about that and a whole lot more. The State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, is walking into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Marie, thanks very much for coming in.



BLITZER: We're following new developments in the U.S.-led war on ISIS, including possible, repeat, possible plans to send U.S. military advisers into one of the terrorist strongholds inside Iraq.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us.

What are you finding out, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm told this plan is in development now and if implemented, it would put U.S. military advisers into the most hotly contested province in Iraq right on the doorstep of the capital, Baghdad and as a result closer to the front lines.

These would not be combat troops. Still, the impetus for this possible deployment is to give Iraqi forces much-needed help to do something they haven't done nearly enough of yet, and that is stand up and confront ISIS.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Anbar is one of the most volatile provinces in Iraq, powerful base for ISIS just west of Baghdad, and scene of some of the fiercest fighting, including the ISIS massacre of 400 Sunni tribesmen in just two days this week. Now the Pentagon is developing a plan to send U.S. military advisers to Anbar.

A senior U.S. military official tells CNN -- quote -- "This will better enable the Iraqi security forces to protect themselves and to take the fight to ISIS."

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We need to expand the train, advise and assist mission into the al-Anbar province. But the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes. By the way, we have positive indications that they are. But we haven't begun to do it yet.

SCIUTTO: The plan, if implemented, would expand the military's so-called train and assist mission beyond Baghdad and Irbil, two cities that are relatively safe from ISIS, to Anbar province, of which ISIS now controls some 80 percent.

And Iraqi forces clearly need their help. This week, as hundreds of Sunni tribesman were slaughtered in Anbar, Iraqi forces were confined to defensive positions, a posture the Pentagon says will not change for months. Local tribal leaders complain they're desperate for the Iraqi military's help.

SHEIKH NAEEM AL-GA'OUD, IRAQI TRIBAL LEADER (through translator): I contacted them and they did not say no to me. I was promised airstrikes by the Iraqi air force, but it did not happen.

SCIUTTO: Sending U.S. advisers to Anbar would, say military officials, open the door to an establishment of an Iraqi National Guard, including Sunni tribes to, undermining ISIS' support among Iraq's embattled Sunni minority.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: It's important that the Iraqi security forces continue to reach out to the Sunni tribes on their own and to bring them into the fold.


SCIUTTO: Now, where U.S. advisers in Anbar would be deployed hasn't been determined yet. There are cities and towns still under Iraqi military control there, and the advisers would be deployed as they are today in Baghdad and Irbil to the command headquarters of Iraqi units on the ground, not on the front lines, but certainly much closer when you look at the map here to where the fighting is, and outside of those relative bubbles of security in Baghdad and Irbil.

BLITZER: If the president and the Joint Chiefs, if they approve this, it sounds to me like mission creep, it certainly sounds like the U.S. is getting closer and closer. Military advisers, they will be on the ground and a lot of them have a lot of combat experience.

SCIUTTO: It's true. If it's not mission creep, it's an expansion of the mission. And it brings them closer to the front lines.

U.S. military officials do repeat though they will not be in combat roles, still advisory roles, but physically they will be in a much more dangerous part of the landscape.

BLITZER: They will be in danger, to be sure. Let's hope for the best. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

We're learning of another disturbing development, ex-Taliban fighters from Afghanistan being paid by Iran to take up weapons in Syria.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is joining us from along the Syrian-Turkish border. He has an exclusive report.

Nick, tell our viewers here in the United States and around the world what you're finding out.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, quite remarkably, Syrian rebels fighting for the key city of Aleppo have discovered that the Syrian regime has been bringing in, amongst this morass of different foreigners, nationalities, groups, all fighting in the chaos that is Syria, discovered a troubling new recruit to assist the Syrian regime.


WALSH (voice-over): The regime is fast advancing around Aleppo, trying to encircle rebels there. This building was blown up in that fight. And now rebels dig, leisurely maybe, as this rescue operation is different.

They know the mouth they can just see belongs to a regime fighter. "Where are your friends?" they ask him. They want him alive, furious, asking, is he from Yemen? No. In fact, this is something they just haven't encountered before.

Bandaged up, on a drip, he can't speak their Arabic. That is because he's Afghan. Valuable enough to keep, they feed him and film this footage, which we can't verify. "My name is Sayed Ahmed Husseini (ph)," he says. "The Iranians pay people like me to come here and fight. I am from Afghanistan, and an immigrant in Iran. The Iranians brought us to Syria to fight to defend the Zainab shrine. I don't want to fight anymore."

He said he was paid about $500 a month to fight. It is a long journey between two lands brutalized by war, but in Eastern Afghanistan, we found the other end of this story. In this tiny village, men who used to fight with the Taliban are off to fight for the Syrian regime. They had come home briefly after training in Iran to say goodbye to their families and asked their fathers if they can go to war.

They think they can fight America in Syria. "We want to go there for two reasons," he says. "One is to fight against those who are being assisted by Americans in Syria, and, secondly, because Iran pays us to fight in Syria. Before this, we used to be part of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But after our disagreements caused tensions among us, we left the Taliban and went to Iran."

They say they were driven to a base blindfolded for 15 days training with infantry weapons and will be paid into these Iranian banks. But they know little about Syria's war. "For now, we don't have a lot of information about ISIS," he says. "But if we see them in Syria, we will definitely sit them, talk to them, and if our thoughts are similar, we could become friends."

America's old enemy, the Taliban, now fighting in a new war, yet more alien furies piling into Syria's maelstrom.


WALSH: People keep saying when could there be a political solution to the Syrian war? It's so hard when neither side is exhausted enough to want to talk because they keep getting new recruits.

But, Wolf, let bring you some breaking news from the Syrian war. We have been following for weeks the fight for Kobani. As darkness fell on the border, we heard from residents and from activists and fighters inside that that long-awaited convoy of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have finally crossed the border into Kobani.

Those Syrian Kurdish fighters inside, who had long awaited those reinforcements, expressing a sense of joy really that they have fellow Kurds fighting alongside them, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds separated by geography, but not by ethnicity. We don't know if what crossed the border was the entirety of those Kurds waiting to go in and try and assist the defense of Kobani, but certainly residents, activists, fighters all agreeing a lot of manpower moving in inside the city now. That could definitely change the balance on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the Turkish government giving permission to those Iraqi Kurds of the Peshmerga to come through Turkey into Syria. That was significant, wasn't it, Nick? WALSH: Absolutely, yes.

This has been Turkey's not wild car, but they have been perhaps reticent to see the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani claim credit for the entire victory. They regard them as terrorists or allies of terrorists here, the Turkish Kurds in Turkey. They wanted the Iraqi Kurd Peshmergas to go in, who they feel more comfortable with to try and dilute that victory for the Syrian Kurds.

They also pushed Syrian rebels in to try and assist the defense as well, a mixed approach by Turkey, but certainly tonight Syrian Kurds breathing more easily because their Kurdish brothers they say are alongside them. One Kurdish fighter saying he didn't know whether to laugh out loud in joy or cry, a great moment of pride for him as a Kurd -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens. Nick Paton Walsh, be careful over there on the Turkey-Syria border.

Let's get some more now with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, who is here.

First, I want to get your reaction to that exclusive report from Nick Paton Walsh that Iran is paying Afghan Taliban fighters to leave Afghanistan and go join the fight in Syria, is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad. That's pretty shocking that the Iranians are getting that deeply involved in helping Bashar al-Assad, moving fighters from Afghanistan to Syria.

HARF: We know Iran has been supporting the Assad regime for a very long time. In fact, we have spoken very publicly about how that's really led to a destabilizing situation in Syria, Iran continuing to send weapons and fighters to support the Assad regime. I can't confirm whether or not that report is accurate about them finding Taliban fighters and moving them to Syria.

But I do know that there are a number of foreign fighters from other countries, jihadis from around the world, who have flocked to Syria to either fight with the regime or fight with ISIL. It's a huge problem.

BLITZER: When the U.S. meets with Iran, and you're going with the secretary of state next week to Oman. You're going to have direct talks with the Iranians. Will you raise this issue?

HARF: These talks are about the nuclear negotiations.

We're just a few weeks out from the November 24 deadline. We're talking with them only about the nuclear issue to see if we can get agreement. At the same time, we have made very clear that we have huge disagreements with them over what's happening in Syria, over their support for the Assad regime, over their human rights record, over the Americans that remain detained in Iran.

I think one is going to be on a CNN show this weekend before he was detained in Iran. We raise all of those other issues obviously very publicly, but these talks are about the nuclear issue.

BLITZER: See if there's a deal to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons potential. We will see what happens in Oman next week.

The other breaking news we had -- and you heard Jim Sciutto report is -- is the Pentagon now seriously considering deploying military advisers to the Anbar province in Iraq. It sounds like mission creep. It sounds like there could be U.S. combat forces on the ground, because this is an area, the Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, these are areas controlled by ISIS.

HARF: There are no plans at this point to put the military advisers into Anbar province.

We have 12 teams on the ground right now advising, and this is in Baghdad and in Irbil. There's obviously a possibility we could do this. The chairman spoke to this yesterday. And the advise and assist mission is a core part of what we're doing in Iraq, helping the security forces get back on their feet. No plans at this point, but always a possibility.

BLITZER: Let me pick your brain on North Korea for a moment.

Our Randi Kaye was out in Ohio today. She had a sit-down interview with the now former prisoner Jeffrey Fowle. He left a Bible at a club in Pyongyang. He spent six months in jail. He was released last week. Listen to what he said.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Why do you think you were released and the others weren't?

JEFFREY FOWLE, FORMER NORTH KOREA PRISONER: I don't know. I have asked that question every day since I have been released.

And my wife is from Russia. There's a Russian connection to it. She wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin asking for help, and he had -- I guess Sergei Lavrov's office answered back and said there wasn't anything he could do. But there's -- DPRK and Russia have pretty good relations.

KAYE: You think that might have helped?


FOWLE: It wouldn't hurt.


BLITZER: Well, do you think the Russians did help get this guy out of there? Because a U.S. Air Force plane flew into Pyongyang to pick him up and bring him back to the United States.

HARF: Well, we certainly work very hard to get all of our citizens detained in North Korea home. As you know, there are two remaining. We're not exactly sure why the North Koreans chose this time to allow Jeff Fowle to return home with his family.

It's hard to determine sometimes what their motivations are.

BLITZER: All right. Let's leave it there.

The good news is, he's home.

HARF: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And let's hope those two other Americans are home soon as well.

Marie, thanks for coming in.

HARF: Happy to be here.

Just ahead, the Ferguson, Missouri, police chief said to be rethinking his future only 24 hours after he told CNN he's not stepping down. Has something changed overnight? We have details. Stay with us.


BLITZER: The future of the Ferguson, Missouri, police chief is now more uncertain than ever. CNN first reported on plans for him to resign over the Michael Brown shooting and the aftermath, but as recently as only a day ago, the chief, Thomas Jackson, insisted he's not going anywhere.

Let's get some more now with the community activist, John Gaskin, and CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director.

John, after a week of insisting he's here to stay, we heard today that the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, he says he may be beginning to rethink his comments he made to CNN's Jason Carroll about not leaving only yesterday.

CNN's Evan Perez, as you know, broke the news on Tuesday that there was a plan in the works for the chief to resign. What do you think is going on here?

JOHN GASKIN, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Well, this is nothing unusual when it comes to his actions and the Ferguson Police Department's actions. They appear to be very disorganized in terms of their messaging.

Many people in the community, as I've spoken with protesters and community leaders today, feel as though when he made those statements yesterday in your interview, there's a good possibility he was in denial regarding the future of the police department, regarding his future with the Ferguson Police Department.

But many people in the community feel as though his resignation or his departure is coming very soon, and that's simply what the word is on the street within St. Louis right now. BLITZER: It's interesting, Tom, because the St. Louis County

police chief said that they had considered what he's calling contingency plans for the city of Ferguson as a result of all the tumultuous developments now over these past many weeks. Does it sound to you like the county, St. Louis County, is getting ready, potentially, to take charge over there?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Probably they are. And with all the talk that's going on, it wouldn't be surprising. But I think it's interesting that you have a state criminal investigation into the shooting, you have a federal investigation into the shooting, you have a federal investigation into police practices, and before any of the results from any of the inquiries are done, you have the attorney general saying wholesale change is needed.

I think that's inappropriate. I think it doesn't help whether -- you know, it's not fair to Chief Jackson, one way or the other. He might be the worst chief there is and needs to be removed, but at least the studies ought to be completed before they announce that he's being fired.

BLITZER: If St. Louis County took over, took charge of Ferguson, would that calm down the community over there? Because everyone is getting ready for some announcement from the grand jury whether to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown or not indict.

GASKIN: I don't know how much calming that will do, but it will definitely be a step in a different direction, if you will. Because as I mentioned before, many people within the community, especially within Ferguson, do not trust law enforcement, whether it is the St. Louis County Police Department, the highway patrol, or the Ferguson Police Department.

There really is a void there between that relationship between the community and law enforcement, and, you know, to really be honest with you, I don't think that that will definitely make a difference in terms of a level of trust or a level of security in terms of how they feel about those that are in leadership.

BLITZER: Tom, that's pretty depressing when you hear that kind of -- that kind of analysis, that there's no trust between the community there in Ferguson and the area and law enforcement, whether county, state, or whatever.

FUENTES: Right. What John is saying, basically, is that no police, no change, no matter who comes in, they won't be trusted, they won't be respected by the community. There's going to be trouble, and how many decades would it take no matter -- you know, if the best police come in there, how long would it take before they ever got the trust of the community?

BLITZER: It's a horrible situation that we're watching. Let's hope for the best.

John Gaskin, as usual, thanks very much. Tom Fuentes, thanks to you, as well. Just ahead, why an alligator wrestler could hold the future of

the United States Congress -- and the U.S., potentially, himself -- in his hands.


BLITZER: It's the race that could determine who controls the United States Senate, but it could also plug the election into chaos, possibly remaining unresolved for weeks. It's part of a runoff election. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, has been looking into what's going on in the Senate race in Louisiana? It's pretty amazing.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It could get crazy, Wolf. There's some twists that you can only expect in Louisiana.

So you know the politics are going to be anything but dull in that state, but in this Senate race -- get this -- there's a vulnerable Democrat, an establishment Republican, and a Tea Party candidate who wrestled an alligator. You can't make this stuff up.


BORGER (voice-over): In Louisiana, they love their gators. Here. Even here. Or in another twist, here.

ROB MANESS (R), LOUISIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: Because Louisiana needs a senator that will stand up to the career politicians and the alligators.

BORGER: No doubt about it, Louisiana politics is only for the thick skinned. And this election season, it's getting really rough.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was eight feet long and 240 pounds.

BORGER: Because of this man, Rob Maness.

MANESS: I get that, "You're that gator guy," all the time. Some said it was a stunt, you know, and you could look at it in that way from a cynical perspective. But it was a very good way to communicate effectively visually with the people of Louisiana.

BORGER: He's a retired Air Force colonel running for the Senate with the Sarah Palin seal of approval, taking on both the Republican establishment candidate and the Democratic incumbent. And he's not just the underdog. His long-shot bid could keep the entire country guessing about who controls the Senate, thanks to Louisiana's quirky election rules.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We call it a jungle primary system. Because we just let all the candidates get into one room so to speak and then just go at it and see who makes the runoff.

BORGER: Every candidate of every party is thrown together on election day. If no one gets more than half the vote, the top two go at it again, a month later. And this year, that's almost a sure bet. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Down in Louisiana in the bright

sunshine, we do a little boogie-woogie all the time

MANESS: If the U.S. Senate, the partisan makeup is hanging in the balance, our runoff is going to be in December. If that does happen, we're expecting a complete circus down here.

BORGER: And that's why Louisiana Republicans are seething at Maness, whom they think is keeping their man, Bill Cassidy, from an outright victory over Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu.

MANESS: The party, it's about power, you know. The back room got together and decided that so and so is going to be the guy or the gal.

BORGER (on camera): Are you getting calls from the back room saying, don't run?

MANESS: Yes, I would say that's a good way to put it.

BORGER (voice-over): He's resisted, and not apologizing. Aren't you the spoiler?

MANESS: Absolutely not. There is no taking votes away from so and so. It's all, people will vote for who they believe can best serve us here in Louisiana.

BORGER: Chef Isaac Tube's family has lived in Louisiana for five generations.

(on camera): I am not Anthony Bourdain.

TOUPS: I'm not Emeril Lagasse.

BORGER: That's gorgeous.

(voice-over): He cooks Cajun at his New Orleans restaurant and welcomes the hot politics of the open primary system and the diverse politics of the state with the distinct north-south divide.

TOUPS: You can fly your flag here in New Orleans, you can be a lot more liberal, you can be a (INAUDIBLE), you can have a purple Mohawk and had your teeth paint black, and someone next to you is going to be twice as crazy.

BORGER (on camera): So, North Louisiana --

TOUPS: It can be very conservative. And that's the way they roll.

Our politics are lively and unique.

BORGER (voice-over): But this year, not that unique. In the key states of North Carolina and Alaska, third party candidates could throw the race. And in Georgia, a libertarian could send that race into a runoff,

in January, one month later than Louisiana. It's a nightmare for the establishment. But for Maness, it's the American dream.

MANESS: I believe this is the United States of America and the voters should get the choice.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So, Gloria, how crazy would a runoff be?

BORGER: You know, in many ways, Wolf, they've already moved past the election, which they haven't had, and into the runoff, which they know they're going to have in December. They've already got $10 million worth of ad times booked on television, so the TV stations are going to make some money off this down there.

You can be sure there's going to be a lot of activists on the ground there, and the lawyers, I guaranty you, will be out there making sure that there are no election irregularities. So, as the piece says, it is going to be kind of crazy.

BLITZER: Yes, it could take a month in Louisiana to let the dust settle and two months in Georgia if there are runoffs in both of those states. Stand by, Gloria.

BORGER: And it would be interesting to see if President Obama actually heads to Louisiana to campaign for Mary Landrieu in a runoff.

BLITZER: In a runoff, but not before the election.

BORGER: Not before, but in the runoff.

BLITZER: Stand by. We're going to have much more coming up right after this.


BLITZER: As we head into the final weekend before the crucial midterm elections on Tuesday, with control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs, we're seeing surprisingly tight races in state after state. And it is looking like election night will be a nail-biter for both parties.

A look at the latest CNN/Opinion Research polling in two key states that we're watching, in Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst leads Democrats Bruce Braley 49 percent to 47 percent among likely voters, taking into account the full sampling error, it's clearly a dead heat.

The same goes for North Carolina where the Democratic Senator Kay Hagan leads Republican challenger Thom Tillis, 48 percent to 46 percent.

For a look at these and some of the other type races we're watching, let's bring in our chief national correspondent John King. He's over at the magic wall -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESODNENT: Wolf, eight or ten races like that within two to four-points heading into this final weekend. So, it will be a wild election night.

Let's set the table. We will start the election with 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans in the United States Senate. The 55 D's includes two independents.

This is the state of play across the country. We have 36 Senate races in all. But we know how most of them are going to go.

We know Democrats will win in Oregon, for example. Republicans will win in Texas. So, we've assigned those races in the map. Could be a surprise there, but we don't think so.

Now, you're looking at these races, let me get rid of three more right off the top. Even most Democrats concede and we'll watch South Dakota, but even most Democrats concede Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia will be Republican pickups on election. That would get Republicans in this scenario to 45-45.

And then you got 10 left. All of these are in single-digits, all 10 races from Alaska to New Hampshire in single-digits heading into the final weekend. Where do we go from there?

There's one scenario I want to give you, increasingly, increasingly, Democrats are worried about the states I'll call the blues, but in this scenario, I just gave the Democrats, I'm sorry, Iowa. They're losing, you just told that. But I'm going to give it to the Democrats just for this scenario, as we play this out, and New Hampshire, where Jeanne Shaheen is a little bit ahead of Scott Brown. Those races could go either, but just bear with me.

In this scenario, Colorado, one of the states President Obama carried twice, I'm giving to Republicans because they say their candidates beginning to break away there. Again, Democrats say they can get it, Wolf, but this is a hypothetical of where we might be.

Then, you're at 46-47, and you've got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven left, right? Well, Republicans are pretty confident they're going to get Alaska, and we might counting into Thursday in Alaska, and Democrats still say it's in play, for the sake of this scenario, I give it over.

I'm gong to come down here to Arkansas. Again, we'll watch on Election Day, but the Republican candidate has been consistently ahead, and we'll move that one over here.

North Carolina, for the sake of this conversation, you just noted Kay Hagan, she's been up two or three points up all along. The Republicans say it's in play, for the sake of this scenario, let's say she holds on right there in North Carolina.

Now, we're looking at Kentucky. Mitch McConnell, that much, but let's give Mitch McConnell that edge. He's in line to be majority leader if Republicans get there.

Well, here's scenario for you, 49-48, three states left. You were just talking with Gloria, a possibility of a runoff in December in Louisiana. In Georgia, the runoff would be in January, if no candidate gets 50 plus one.

The one left on the table, Kansas, increasingly because of the governor's race, Republicans are nervous about this one in the final days. A couple of Republicans told me today they will not be surprised at all if the independent Greg Orman wins. Imagine he does, he hasn't told us, Wolf, who he'll caucus with yet. Imagine he wins that one, you're at 49-48, with two states in play in December and January, United States control, we might not know at Tuesday night, we might not know Wednesday morning. It is conceivable we might not know it until the first week of January and how long will Mr. Orman sit there saying, I haven't decided yet if he is the potential kingmaker.

BLITZER: Because he says he hasn't decided if he's going to caucus of Democrats or Republicans.

John, stay with us. I want to bring in our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, she's still with us. As well as our political commentator, Cornell Belcher, he's a Democratic pollster who's worked for President Obama.

So, late in this contest, so late in this contest --

BORGER: Happy New Year, guys.

BLITZER: Gloria, why are these races so tight still?

BORGER: Look, the voters are holding their noses and voting this time. This is an election about anger, about fear, about disappointment. It's close because you have a lot of Democrats running in those red states, that Mitt Romney won, that you've got unpopular president, you've got an unpopular Congress. I mean, you throw it all in together and it's this mixture which makes it very unpredictable and any wild card could kind of upset. It we've seen foreign policy upset the apple card a little bit here, so we don't know.

CORNELL BELCHER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But here is the problem -- look at the map and go back a couple of months ago and Republicans were saying they would run up the score here. This was a map made for them.

And Rand Paul is on to something. And the Republican Party bashed Rand Paul for what he said. But they have a brands problem.

In 2006, when I was a pollster for DNC under Howard Dean, I knew we were going to have a sea change election because I saw the various lineup in place, but also Democrats had a better brand than Republicans did. You can't make that same argument right now and if they don't even the score in Tuesday, it's because their brand got in the way. KING: And you feel that when you travel the country. They do

have a brand problem. Now, they could run it. If all of the races that are close and break late, and sometimes they do, Republicans could get as high as 55, some think they could get as high as 53. But if they are one plus 51, or one short 49, it will be a great conversation.

There's one other point, though, that we forget sometimes, forget all the names, forget all the states, but we have an evenly divided country. This has been our country for nearly 15, 16 years, where we have polarized politics, the parties are roughly even, more and more people describing themselves as independents but most of them really aren't. They either vote D or they vote R and this is what's playing out.

BORGER: But I could say, to Cornell's point, that the Democrats have a brand problem, because they have an unpopular president, they have constituencies they're trying to appeal to, they're trying to appeal to women, for example. But they don't have an overall message. They haven't been running on the economy, I'm not sure what they're running on. They are running away from the president.

BELCHER: You are preaching to the choir. And how successful is that when you try to run away from the top rated ticket. It tends to not to be worked out that well.

KING: Well, we don't know. Mid-term elections are almost always about the president but we don't know how much the Republican brand will hurt them and how much will voters process the Republicans are supposed to be part of governing, too.

BORGER: Exactly.

BELCHER: One quick point on the president's brand, he is 20 percent more popular than congressional Republicans. He may be unpopular but they are even more unpopular.

BORGER: And if they don't have a wave --

KING: The terrain is the red states. You can't look at the president's national numbers.


BLITZER: Let's talk about Louisiana. Your report, Gloria, in Louisiana was excellent. We might not know the winner in Louisiana until December. Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Democratic senator, she said something to NBC News that's generating a lot of commotion right now.

I'll play the clip.


SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D), LOUISIANA: To be very, very honest with you, the South has not always been the friendliest place for African- Americans. It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.


BLITZER: Is this part of a new strategy that she's doing? What is she talking about?

BORGER: Are we going to play another clip because I'm waiting for the controversy. That the idea that African-Americans have had issues in the South, that we've had polarized racial politics in the South, is that controversial? I don't know how that's controversial. It's just the truth when you look at sort of how the South has voted last time around and continued patterns of what is -- what is racial politics throughout the South.

I don't think it's a controversial statement at all. Truth of the matter is when you look at the economic growth that we've had in this country, 3.5 percent economic growth last quarter, unemployment low that Europe would love to have, health care costs leveling off, more people insured, peace and prosperity, one could argue why isn't the president's job approval --


BLITZER: Gloria, it has generated controversy.

BORGER: Well, it's generated controversy -- I mean, Mary Landrieu had to issue another statement saying the reason the president has struggled in Louisiana because his energy policies are not in line with the people of Louisiana.

BLITZER: Very quickly, John, because we got to go.

KING: The president's approval rating is higher in the states, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, where there are more African- American, yet none of the vulnerable Democrats will invite him in.

BLITZER: That says a lot. All right, guys --

BORGER: But I think she does in the runoff.


BELCHER: He's the best campaigner we got.

BLITZER: Coming up on Tuesday, guys. Thanks very, very much.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter, go ahead tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitroom. And please be sure to join us again Monday right here on THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always watch us live or DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.