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Three-Way Tie a Week Before Iowa Caucuses; Fact-Finding Team Now in Syria; Iran Tries to Expand Ties to Iraq; Prince Philip Leaves Hospital; Countdown to Iowa Caucuses; Politics 2011: The Top 10 Stories; Soldier Shot at Own Homecoming Party; Big Brawl at Mall of America

Aired December 27, 2011 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Ali and Alina.

And this morning we begin with presidential politics. One week from today talk will turn to action. After months of campaigning, the Republican candidates face their first real test in Iowa. The caucuses mark the first formal vote of the 2012 race.

Joe Johns is in Des Moines along with CNN political director Mark Preston.

All right, let's talk about the statistical dead heat there at the top in Iowa.

Joe Johns, I'm going to start with you and that question. And candidates are going to be crisscrossing the state today. Talk to us about this day a week before the caucuses -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you can call this crunch time for sure, Hala. It's a time when the candidates really bear down and Iowa truly gets focused on the caucuses.

Interestingly enough, Mitt Romney starts out his day in New Hampshire. However, he like many of the other candidates will end up here in Iowa. He's going out on a bus tour. So is Newt Gingrich, in fact. He's another guy we're going to be watching very closely. He's supposed to show up actually in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on "THE SITUATION ROOM" later today at 4:00 Eastern Time.

Notably, one of the candidates who is expected to get back out here until tomorrow is Ron Paul. Of course he and Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are locked up in a three-way statistical tie for the caucuses here in Iowa.

Very busy days ahead. And we're looking forward to it -- Hala.

GORANI: OK, yes, and we look forward to your reporting, as well.

OK, so, Mark, Romney, Gingrich and Ron Paul, all locked, as we've been saying over the last several days in this statistical dead heat. So what can we expect in terms of bold moves because each of the candidates is going to need one to sort of break away from the pack in Iowa. MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL EDITOR: Well, you know, Hala, it might not -- the bold moves that you're talking about might not actually be from the candidates themselves as it might be from these outside groups that are trying to influence the election. We're seeing lots of television ads on the air right now, some of them negative, some of them positive.

As Joe just said, we're going to see bus tours from the candidates across the state. The main theme we will hear from these candidates here in Iowa where 60 percent of the Iowa caucus goers, Republican caucus goers, in 2008 describe themselves as born again Christians or evangelicals is family values. So expect to hear that a lot.

But then again it does come back to this number one issue, and that is the economy. So expect to hear that from all of the candidates.

You know, Hala, we talked about Mitt Romney and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich all in the statistical heat to see who is going to win the Iowa caucuses. But just as important is all the other candidates such as Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum or Rick Perry. Three candidates who have to do well here on January 3rd.

GORANI: Yes.

PRESTON: Or their campaigns could be over -- Hala.

GORANI: Well, that's the question I had for you next. What is the potential for some of these bottom tier candidates to rise either next week in Iowa or further down the line?

PRESTON: Well, you know, for someone like Rick Santorum, we saw him on the campaign trail yesterday, Hala. Trying to prove his bona fide conservative credentials. He is trying his best to try to, as you say, get that rise. He's probably spent more time here in Iowa than any other candidate. He really needs it.

The same with Michele Bachmann. She won the Iowa straw poll back in August, but we've seen her campaign totally fade away and then Rick Perry who really could do well with social conservatives except that his campaign hasn't been very strong and he has faded away, as well.

But as we say, Hala, the three of those don't do very well on January 3rd, their campaigns could be over.

GORANI: And Joe Johns, I want to ask you one last question about really how these candidates are trying to appeal to caucus voter because family values and social conservatism are both important things but then Mark was mentioning the economy. In the end, it will come down to that perhaps in the general election.

So how do they shift their campaign to appeal to those who are concerned about the economy as much as those social conservative issues in the primary process? JOHNS: Well, you know, it's a real balancing act and it always has been out here, but I think what Mark said is one of the most interesting features of the Iowa caucuses. So many evangelicals, 60 percent of them in the last caucuses voting. So when you look at the economy, everybody is talking about it.

There are different ways you appeal to Republicans certainly than you do to Democrats and there has been a lot of talk out here about people standing -- you know, self-reliance, standing on their own two feet and leaving the economy alone is another big theme. In other words, letting free enterprise, if you will, work here in this country as opposed to exerting the strong hand to the government.

All of that is in play with these conservatives and there are a lot of different ways that these candidates can appeal to them on those terms.

GORANI: Joe Johns, Mark Preston, in Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks very much.

We're a week away from these caucuses in Iowa with these three top tier candidates as far as the polls are concerned for Iowa. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. We'll see if anyone else arises in the next few days of polling.

And do stay with us because at the half hour, we're going to be talking more about Iowa's political landscape. Carol Hunter is the politics editor of the "Des Moines Register" and she'll be my guest. So do tune in for that as we continue to analyze the race.

And this reminder, tune in one week from today for the Iowa caucuses. "AMERICA'S CHOICE 2012" is our live coverage of the Iowa caucuses beginning Tuesday night January 3rd at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let's turn our attention to international news now. And we have a team of correspondents fanned out across the Middle East. A group of fact finders from the Arab League is now on the ground in Syria. They're in the city of Homs among other places to see if the government has ended its crackdown on protesters.

Before the group arrived, our sources in Homs say that military forces left their positions. This is to comply with an Arab League demand that the military withdraw from city centers. Thousands of protesters rallied against the regime.

Take a look at some of these images from Homs today.

So still some violence and just today an opposition group reports four people dead in Homs, 13 total throughout the country.

Mohammed Jamjoom is monitoring the story from Cairo.

We haven't been allowed back in, Mohammed, to Syria since a brief trip there that I made back in July along with our crew. Bu I've got to ask you about these witnesses saying that the military was seen withdrawing from Homs right before the monitors came in. And people are saying, well, once the monitors leave, the tanks will roll right back into Homs.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is certainly the fear at this hour, Hala. The opposition activists and residents in Homs that we've been speaking with, many of them say, in fact, that the government, it wasn't that they withdrew the tanks but that they hid them in government buildings very close to where crackdowns have been going on and that they're very much afraid that once the observers leave today, that those thanks will come back into the streets and start shelling the houses again, and start killing the people as was reported by so many activists yesterday.

Now today we're also seeing a live streaming video from Homs, the Khaldiyeh neighborhood, of at least 20,000 people that have gathered, calling for help from the international community, trying to get the attention of the international community. We're told earlier that this protest started small, but that it grew once residents there understood that because of the presence of the Arab League observers that the military was not going to be cracking down on them today.

And we've also seen video posted online by the Syria Observatory for Human Rights purporting to show members of the Arab League observation team in Homs. We also see another video which purports to show a resident there pleading with members of this observatory team -- Hala.

GORANI: Right. And we're seeing some of these observers there in video provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One man there holding a cigarette, others sort of trying to explain to them what's going on.

But I want to look at that live stream again because it shows you that when there is no threat of military crackdown, this is what happens in cities like Homs. People actually come out and there are thousands.

Now for Americans watching this and they've heard over the last nine plus months about this crackdown, what do the protesters want the international community to do? Do they want them to do something similar to what happened in Libya, for instance?

JAMJOOM: Well, right now they mainly want some sort of international body to be able to intervene and make sure that these crackdowns stop. We've heard from so many residents in cities like Idlib, in cities like Homs, that fear that a genocide could happen, if there isn't a group that can come in and effectively deal with the Syrian regime.

Now some people there hope that there -- hope that there could be a mission as there was in Libya and that they could rid Syria of that regime. Others just hope that some kind of effective body can come in and monitor and the fear -- the fear that we're hearing more and more from inside Syria is they don't believe that the Arab League, with their 50 to 100 monitors is that body that can be effective in trying to counter the al-Assad regime.

Even though the al-Assad regime signed this protocol with the Arab League a few days ago to try to allow these monitors in, we've heard that the crackdowns have only increased and the deaths have only increased. So that is the concern right now -- Hala.

GORANI: OK. Thank you, Mohammed Jamjoom in Cairo.

CNN's Zain Verjee is in London and she has more details about the international reaction to those events going on in Syria and the wider Middle East.

Zain, what have people been saying about what's happening there now?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hi, Hala. Let me just give you a sense of what the newspaper headlines are now, OK?

Let's take a look first at "The National" in the United Arab Emirates. This is the headlines. It says, "Credibility test for Arab League in Syria mission." It's an opinion piece that says, "This mission should mark a turning point in the Syrian crisis. For that to be true, however, the Arab League has to show its determination for a fair and comprehensive reporting."

Take a look at "The Guardian," Hala. It said, "Ignore Libya, Syria's story can follow a different script." It's a comment piece that says, "Amid the horror, the first glimmer of good news has appeared. The Arab League are deploying as part of a deal which offers the best and perhaps last chance of a political solution rather than a slide into all out civil war."

Finally the "International Herald Tribune" has this headline, "Death toll in Syrian city said to be rising." It actually describes the scene in Homs and says, "Residents of Homs spoke of an intensifying war in some neighborhoods. The residents holed up in bathrooms or lower floors for safety were not able to say where most of the fire was coming from."

Hala, it's going to be interesting to see if those observers will get any real access to some of the trouble spots in Homs and what kind of real impact this trip is going to have.

GORANI: And what happens after they leave. Thanks very much, Zain Verjee, is in London. We'll talk to you a bit later, Zain.

A week after U.S. troops left Iraq, Iran is beginning to reassert its influence there. Coming up we'll tell you what this means for the neighbors' complicated relationship and what it means for the United States, as well.

And 2011 brought us some memorable moments in politics, to say the least. We're looking at a list of the top 10. Stay with us, we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: The White House might let Yemen's president into the United States for medical treatment. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded in June during an attack on his palace. He was badly burned, in fact. He was treated in Saudi Arabia and he recently agreed to step down after 33 years in power and bloodshed in his country.

It is still unclear if Saleh would come to the U.S., even if he's allowed. The White House has not announced a decision.

Iran is making a bold push to deepen its ties with its neighbor, Iraq, just a week after America's military exit.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us to explain what this means for both countries, and, of course, for the United States, as well.

After nine years at war now, Iran and Iraq seem to be getting closer and closer in the Middle East. So, what is this all about?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Hala, I think a lot of people would tell you that Iran never really abandoned its influence in Iraq. It's only been growing over the last nine years. Iranian weapons coming into Iraq at various times, Iranian money, religious influence, of course, cultural influence.

But what we have now is a very open statement on the military front, essentially, from Iran's armed forces, chief of staff. I want to read it to everyone. He says, from Iran, he says, quote, "The Islamic republic of Iran is ready to establish, boost and expand all types of military, defense and security cooperation with the friendly and brotherly nation of Iraq."

So, this now brings it out in the open. Of course, Iran has backed militia groups inside Iraq for many years very covertly. Now, now out in the open, Iran wants a military relationship with Iraq and that is going to be problematic for the United States. They don't object to the religious, cultural, economic, business ties -- that's all very well understood.

But the question here at the pentagon is exactly what is Iran up to, and just how much are they trying to destabilize whatever fragile piece there is in Iraq -- Hala.

GORANI: But this can't come as a surprise to the United States. The Iraq invasion essentially got rid of a Sunni dictator that was the biggest foe Iran could possibly have and now, there's more or less a Shiite leadership in the country. So, it makes sense that they would form closer ties with Iran.

STARR: Yes, absolutely. This is why, you know, the U.S. administration has long acknowledged that reality. There are going to be very close ties between Iran and Iraq and, for that matter, Iran and Afghanistan. It's really the same issue on the table.

The U.S. accepts that. There's no question about it. But what they want to keep a very close eye on is any destabilization. Iran has a long military history, of course, of using other countries as surrogates for their potential terrorist operations or something like that. That is going to be the concern. That's what the U.S. wants to keep watching for.

GORANI: OK, thanks very much -- as the Middle East and the Arab world continues to recompose itself strategically. It's interesting to see how these things are developing.

And, Barbara Starr, thanks very much for joining us.

Countdown to the Iowa caucuses. Candidates hit the ground. Their messages fill the air. We'll look at the advertising blitz to help all these undecided voters make up their minds.

And we'll show you this -- it's a big brawl in a big mall. Police had to step in with guns drawn, shoppers scrambling for the exits at the Mall of America.

We'll be right back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Well, he had a bit of a health scare, but he's out of the hospital. We're talking about Britain's Prince Philip. He had surgery to open a blocked artery in his heart. This is Queen Elizabeth's 90-year-old husband. He is going to go back to Sandringham where the family spent Christmas.

And Zain Verjee has more from London.

So, are -- is the hospital or is Buckingham palace saying anything about how he's doing now?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: They're saying that he is in good spirits, Hala. He left the hospital all smiles. He waved as he left in the car, essentially, to rejoin the rest of the royal family at Sandringham. He was treated for a blocked coronary artery and they're saying that he's OK now.

I mean, yes, he's 90 years old and he did have a little bit of a scare, but there he goes. Back off to the family home in the countryside of the queen. This is really where the royal family, Hala, spends their Christmases.

Prince Philip is likely to be a little bit disappointed, though, because he missed the Boxing Day hunt. That's always the big day. He looks forward to that and enjoys shooting pheasants, the bird, not pheasants the people.

But he is going to be there for a while with the family. And the rest of the nation views him pretty fondly, actually. So, they'll be happy that he's back -- Hala.

GORANI: I'm glad it's pheasants with an H.

(LAUGHTER)

GORANI: Now, on his 90th century, he said he was gradually winding down -- I'm reading the exact quote here, "wind down his work load." OK? Has he done that? And I'd imagine now after this health scare, he's going to really have to take it easy, right?

VERJEE: Yes, he is going to have to take it easy. He gave that interview to the BBC. And he said, yes, you know, I have done my bit and I want to relax now and wind down and he also said, I'm just tired of having to think of something to say all the time. Now, you lived in this country for a long time and you know that Prince Philip is very well-known from using people for putting his foot in his mouth, a lot.

So, you know, it has been a source of great amusement in this country. But, you know, a lot of people really do admire him for really supporting the queen and being a long-running consort of hers and really an institution at 90.

GORANI: OK, thanks very much. Zain Verjee in London, see you a bit later.

Wall Street getting back to work after a long weekend. We only have four trading days left.

Alison Kosik is at the New York Stock Exchange.

So, the open in a little more than six minutes. What are we expecting, Alison?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hala, expect a flat start. Expect a quiet week overall. You know, investors have pretty closed the books on this year.

The only lingering question, of course, can investors hold on to the gains that are there right now for the year as -- because as we come into today, the Dow is up about 6.2 percent year to date. The NASDAQ is down 1.3 percent. The S&P 500, that's what your 401(k) and other retirement accounts track, that is hanging on to a 0.6 percent gain. Let's see if the S&P 500 at least can stay in the plus column as we ride out of the rest of the year -- Hala.

GORANI: All right. Now, let's talk about this amusing story. Single people apparently are storming the Internet. They only have four days left to find a date for New Year's Eeve, and that's benefiting Web sites like Match.com.

KOSIK: Yes, exactly. So, yes, what usually happens is Christmas is over and people think, oh my goodness, New Year's Eve is coming and I have nobody to kiss. So, what I'm going to do, so what you see is people start flocking to the Internet to find a date.

And yesterday actually marked the beginning of the unofficial busiest time of the year for online dating. And it usually starts with a big push to find a date for New Year's Eve and actually goes through all the way through Valentine's Day.

Now, according to "The New York Daily News," industry insiders expect a 10 percent to 20 percent jump in new subscribers and a significant increase over the next couple of months. Of course, that's good for companies like Match.com and sparks networks, but also good for consumers because better odds there, law of numbers, bigger pool of online daters and have that better chance of finding that special someone.

GORANI: Look, four days? You should be good in four days. It's not like you have four hours.

KOSIK: That's nothing.

GORANI: Listen, I think people -- right, I think people in four days could find a date for New Year's Eve.

Anyway, good luck to everyone on that. We'll see a bit later, Alison, for more on Wall Street.

One week until the Iowa caucuses and the Republican candidates are blitzing the state as they sprint to the finish line. We'll look also at how they're saturating the air waves.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Checking some of our top stories now:

The reward for information that leads to this little girl is up to $30,000. Twenty-month-old Ayla Reynolds of Waterville, Maine, disappeared more than a week ago and police say someone kidnapped her from her home.

Iranian woman sentenced to be executed for adultery will die according to the courts in Iran, but she won't be stoned. The head of the judiciary there calls that, quote, "impractical." The court says she'll likely be hanged, instead.

And the latest scare involving Chinese dairy products is drawing criticism of the way China inspects its food. Tests have found milk at China's largest dairy company was tainted with a toxin that can cause liver cancer. It was traced to contaminated cow feed.

The Iowa caucuses are now just one week ago and five top Republican candidates will be crisscrossing the state today. But they haven't just relied on the personal touch. Campaigns have funneled million s of dollars into an advertising blitz.

Here's a new one from Rick Perry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: If Washington is the problem, why trust a congressman to fix it? Among them, they spent 63 years in Congress leaving us with debt, earmarks and bailouts. A congressman gets $174,000 a year and you get the bills.

We need a solution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GORANI: Well, the barrage of political ads could get busier. We should say will get busier and will get uglier in the remaining days, if history is any guide.

Joining me now is Carol Hunter, the politics editor of "The Des Moines Register."

Carol, thanks for being with us.

So, your newspaper is breaking down some of the numbers and trends there in terms of campaign spending. And you're expecting Ron Paul to go on another barrage in Iowa. Tell us more about that.

CAROL HUNTER, POLITICS HUNTER, "DES MOINES REGISTER": Yes. Ron Paul has been very active on the airwaves here in Iowa, although he's not yet topped Rick Perry. Rick Perry is the king as far as advertising here in December.

But Ron Paul has spent more over the length of the campaign. He's just been up steady. Plus, he went negative among the firsts, especially once Newt Gingrich started rising in the polls.

GORANI: Now, Newt Gingrich is complaining about being targeted by negative ads. Now, I wonder with Iowa caucus voters, how does that play out? Does it work? Because it's been effective in the past, the negative ads, no matter how much candidates say they won't engage in that practice or their supporters.

HUNTER: Iowa has a very mixed record on that front. The recent polls seem to indicate that it is helping take Newt Gingrich down somewhat in the polls, but if you go back to races like Dick Gephardt, he was said to be hurt very much by his barrage of negative advertising. It was also thought to hurt Howard Dean back in 2004.

GORANI: So, let's talk about Romney and his response to that, saying his campaign is not targeting Gingrich with negative ads. These are political action committees.

Who are these political action committees? Who -- they support one candidate over another, but are they cover for the campaigns?

HUNTER: Well, they conserve that way. Certainly Romney has benefited from a super PAC that has bought a lot of advertising. That sort of lets him lay low, hang back and keep on his message about his economic platform while the super PAC does the dirty work, so to speak.

GORANI: Let's talk about the bottom tier candidates. This is not all said and done, even after Iowa. It's possible we might see some surprises and some upsets. We know there is that statistical dead heat among the top three.

But what about the bottom tier candidates, Bachmann, Santorum and others, what is their potential for a rise and what do they need to do?

HUNTER: Well, lots of people think you might see a surprise in that so-called bottom tier. Of course, it's Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, all of them solid social conservatives. All have sort of suffered by going after that same block of social conservatives and evangelicals.

But Santorum is claiming to have some momentum now. He got some key personal endorsements last week from Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley, the evangelical leaders in the state.

And Texas Governor Rick Perry, again, has been up on advertising, really hitting the airwaves hard. He's out on a bus tour.

Michele Bachmann is covering 99 counties in 10 days. So, she's really trying to close the deal hard, too.

They're all aiming to be able to come out of Iowa and say they're the social conservative candidate.

GORANI: Carol Hunter, the politics editor of "The Des Moines Register" -- thanks very much -- joining us live from Des Moines.

Stay with CNN for the best political coverage on television. This afternoon at 4:00 Eastern, Newt Gingrich will be live in "THE SITUATION ROOM" with Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

Now, Mel Gibson is waking up a single man this morning. His divorce is final, but there are reports that it didn't come cheap. Up next, hear how many millions he may be shelling out to his ex.

And we'll explain the story behind this brawl at the Mall of America. Some after-Christmas chaos at one of the world's biggest shopping centers. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: An update on the showbiz world.

Mel Gibson is officially a single man. His divorce is now final. He may be hundreds of millions of dollars poorer because of it.

"Showbiz Tonight" correspondent Nischelle Turner is in L.A. with those details.

Hi there, Nischelle. So, this is going to be expensive for Mr. Gibson.

NISCHELLE TURNER, "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT CORRESPONDENT: Oh, Hala, yes, very expensive. You know, this could actually be the most costly divorce in Hollywood history. Over the weekend, Mel Gibson finalized his divorce from his wife, Robyn. It looks like she's walking away with half of Mel's net worth. That's reportedly around -- wait for this now -- $425 million, it's not even my money and it hurts me saying it.

And they didn't have a prenup because that's probably because in part they got together before Mel really hit it big in Hollywood. The pair had been married for almost 30 years and they have seven kids together.

GORANI: OK. Well, seven kids, 30 years, there you go. You should be entitled to half.

How about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver? They spent the holidays together. So, what's that about?

TURNER: Well, you know what? There's a lot of buzz around Hollywood that they actually could get back together. I mean, there's this talk out there. But I don't think anyone knows what's coming for these two.

Now, "People" magazine says they spent Christmas together with their four children and they went to the L.A. Lakers season opener. Now, Maria, of course, filed for divorce back in July after it was revealed that Arnold fathered a child with a household employee and, yes, there are these new reports that she is reconsidering the divorce and that Arnold is -- and has been really trying to win her back.

But even if that's true -- I mean, you got to think, there's a very long way to go before they can be a whole happy family, again. And, by the way, Hala, we did speak with Maria's representatives yesterday and they simply said, we have no comment on any of this.

GORANI: Well, when you have children together, oftentimes couples will get together for the holidays. So, I don't know. I don't know why people --

(CROSSTALK)

GORANI: Four kids, you know, you've got to kind of do it for them, I guess.

Well, Nischelle, thanks very much. And Nischelle will be back with us next hour with more showbiz headlines. Coming up, big stars with big hearts and they have deep pockets. Justin Bieber and George Clooney rank among the most charitable this year. But hear which celebrity comes on top of the pack in terms of giving, in terms of being charitable next hour.

Now, it's been a wild year in politics, filled with scandal and memorable moments. Coming up, we'll countdown the top 10 political stories of the year.

And later, a soldier who survived a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan is shot twice at his own homecoming party.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: 2011 was a big, big year and in politics, as well, with big moments -- in some cases, some big laughs. From the "Daily Show" to "Saturday Night Live," comedians have lots of material to work with.

CNN's Joe Johns counts down the top 10 stories from this year in politics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HERMAN CAIN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Shock, duck (ph) it now.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Number 10, the Hermanator. Maybe next time Backyardigans will play his swan song.

We ought to devote a whole segment to one candidate for president because he meant so much to so many. What would this election would have been without the pizza man himself, Herman Cain? Whether it was his request for Secret Service protection, even before his wife found out about the alleged 13-year affair with a woman that Cain denied ever having, or was it his now infamous brain freeze when talking about Libya.

CAIN: I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reasons. Nope, that's a different line.

JOHNS: Herman Cain was the candidate to beat for a little off- beat levity on the campaign trail this year. Suffice to say that when he finally rolled up his campaign banners and walked off into the sunset, as his last official act, he actually quoted "Pokemon the Movie".

CAIN: Life can be a challenge.

MUSIC: Life can be a challenge.

CAIN: Life can seem impossible.

MUSIC: Life can seem impossible.

CAIN: It's never easy when there's so much on the line.

MUSIC: -- on the line.

CAIN: Number nine --

LESLIE JOHNSON, JACK'S WIFE: Two women are at the door.

JACK JOHNSON, FORMER PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, MARYLAND EXECUTIVE: Don't answer it.

LESLIE JOHNSON: I'm not.

JOHNS: If they had only used a large girdle, they might have gotten away with it. Former Prince George's County, Maryland, executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, were a power couple who got caught on the wrong side of the law. Court documents said he took bribes ranging from $400,000 to $1 million.

But where there's a high-level bribery, an FBI wiretap operation seems almost not always far behind. When the agents were knocking on the door, the audiotape of the moment was not pretty.

LESLIE JOHNSON: What do you want me to do with this money? They are banging.

JACK JOHNSON: Put it in your panties and walk out of the house.

LESLIE JOHNSON: No, but I mean all this cash, Jack.

JACK JOHNSON: Put it in your panties Leslie.

JOHNS: Number eight: if he had dressed up as an elephant or a donkey, would anyone have noticed? Democratic Congressman David Wu of Oregon got caught on camera dressed up in a tiger suit. But he didn't resign his jobs until reports surfaced he had an unwanted sexual encounter with the 18-year-old daughter of a long-time friend and campaign donor.

Number seven: and after all this time they thought they were smarter than everybody else. A bill to outlaw insider trading by members of Congress got on a fast track after a series of reports about how House members with special access to financial information always seemed to outperform the market on their Wall Street investment.

Number six: and the lowest blood sugar of the campaign award goes to Rick Perry. Sometimes he seems all over the place, completely forgetting part of his stump speech in the middle of a nationally- televised debate.

RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I will tell you, it's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, education and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see.

RON PAUL (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But you can't name the third one?

PERRY: The third agency of government, I would do -- I would do away with education, the -- commerce. And let's see -- I can't. The third one I can't, sorry. Oops.

JOHNS: At another time, almost completely over the top. Almost too much energy. What's going on with this guy?

PERRY: This is such a cool state. I mean, come on, live free or die? I mean, you know you got to love that, right? I come from a state, you know, where they had this little place called the Alamo and they declared victory or death. We're kind of into those slogans, man. It's like live free or die, victory or death, bring it. The ones that want to stay in the old system pay the lawyers and pay the accountants and all that money that is gone. Are that 20 percent flat tax, put it on there and take your deductions off and send it in. Today has been awesome, girl.

JOHNS: Then to the handlers. In endurance sports and that's what this campaign is, some brain freeze is also what you can call bonking or hitting the wall. Nothing that can't be fixed with a protein bar and a banana. Please, keep it on the bus for all of us.

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GORANI: That was ten through six, you know you want to see the rest. The year's top five political stories, straight ahead.

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GORANI: Polls, pandering and pot shots -- the political narrative of 2011. CNN's Joe Johns has the top five stories in politics this year.

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JOHNS: Number five: somehow, he completely missed that writing on the wall. When he resigned his office this year, Republican Senator John Ensign said he was leaving the Capitol to save his family from embarrassment.

But now, it looks like he got out of politics because he couldn't raise enough money to get re-elected. And why couldn't he raise enough money? Maybe because of his money handling skills. He got his parents to give his girlfriend and her husband a $96,000 gift, ostensibly to keep the affair quiet.

Number four: no, what I said was Congressman-elect. Democratic New York Congressman Anthony Weiner was absolutely adamant that someone had hacked his Twitter account after what you might call an inappropriate photo was sent to a college student under Weiner's name.

It was only after CNN's Wolf Blitzer pressed Weiner on the owner of the briefs in the picture that Weiner slowly started to come clean.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": You would know if this was your underpants.

WEINER: Photographs can be manipulated. Photographs can be taken out from one place and put in another place, photos can be doctored. And I want to make sure that that -- that we know for sure what happened here. It certainly doesn't look familiar to me, but I don't want to say with certitude to use something that I don't know to be the certain truth. But I do know some certain truths here.

JOHNS: Not long after that interview, the truth came out.

WEINER: To be clear, the picture was of me and I sent it.

JOHNS: Ten days later, his once promising political career was toast.

WEINER: Unfortunately, the distraction that I have created has made that impossible. So today, I'm announcing my resignation from Congress.

JOHNS: Number three: and now, the show can be called "Real ex- Housewives of D.C." Michaele and Tareq Salahi finally called it quits this year in the most embarrassing and tabloid fashion possible. They are the White House party-crashers who somehow slipped into a state dinner and rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful, including the President setting off a security paranoia in the complex that continues to this day.

The Salahi's broke up just a few days before a bankruptcy sale of their property in Virginia's wine country when she ran off to Nashville with the lead guitarist from the rock and roll band Journey.

Number two: it sounded like it was right out of the comic books and turns out that wasn't too far off. A legion of super friends, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and their allies. The super committee of 12 super heroes named this year to save the day on Capitol Hill. Cut spending, make everything taste great and less filling. With the bad guys of Wall Street threatening to downgrade Uncle Sam's credit, the super committee was brought together to rescue us from ourselves. Unfortunately, it didn't work.

Didn't the bad guys win? Didn't they win the last time, too?

And number one on the list. Guess who's laughing all the way to the bank this time. After nearly taking down the economy three years ago and getting massive bailouts from the Federal government, the banks are mostly back, reporting record profits again, though for much of this year, unemployment hovered at or near nine percent. The good news is, if you work at a bank, you'll probably be just fine.

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GORANI: Joe Johns reporting.

We're following lots of developments in the next hour of CNN Newsroom. Let's check in first with Alison Kosik.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Attention, K-Mart shoppers. Where to go? It was a very un-Merry Christmas for K-Mart and its parent company Sears Holdings. So more than 100 Sears and K- Mart stores are closing for good. What went wrong? I'm going to have details in the next hour.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Mohammed Jamjoom in Cairo. Arab League observers finally arrive in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs as thousands of demonstrators there stage a huge rally calling on help from the international community. I'll have a live report at the top of the hour.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: And I'm Jill Dougherty at the State Department. After an internal debate, the Obama administration has decided to allow Yemen's embattled president to come to the U.S. for medical treatment and I'll have more at the top of the hour.

GORANI: All right. Thanks very much to all three of you. And also next hour, by the way, you're going to hear from Jordan Romero. He's been to the top of Everest and Kilimanjaro. In fact, he's been at the top of the tallest mountain on each continent. And hey, guess how old he is? He's 15. That's a record. He's calling us from Antarctica, next hour.

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GORANI: Checking stories across the country, he survived a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan and got the purple heart even. Today, Christopher Sullivan lies paralyzed in a hospital in San Bernardino, California shot twice at his own homecoming party. The alleged gunman surrenders to police. Sullivan's mother says a fight broke out over a football game just before the shooting.

Well, a series of fights broke out at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota yesterday. This is amateur video of all the mess. It took police and mall security an hour to get control of the situation in a place crowded with frightened day-after Christmas shoppers.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some people are running. Some staying, people are confronting each other in the middle, people just walking, like nobody was even around. They were just going at it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All of a sudden like, stores just started closing down and like the gates were going up and so we just really didn't notice or know what was going on and the cops were like pushing us all away from like Nordstrom.

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GORANI: Near Salt Lake City, a family came home on Christmas eve and found a deer in one of the bedrooms. Hello. It had crashed through a window. Animal control officers had to tranquilize the nervous five-foot buck to get him out of the house.