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Romney Tries For Knockout; Interview With Presidential Candidate Rick Perry; Interview with Reince Priebus

Aired January 11, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening.

Tonight, we're live from the CNN Election Center. I'm John King.

It is on to South Carolina for the Republicans who would be president, with Mitt Romney looking to run his win streak to three and to use his dramatic momentum to raise millions more this month.

The Texas governor, Rick Perry, is among those vowing to stop Romney in South Carolina. He's right here to answer Republicans who say attacks on the front-runner's business record are over the line. And just wait until you see Governor Perry's backdrop.

Plus, a plot worthy of a spy model. A motorcycle rider attaches a magnetic bomb to the car of an Iranian nuclear scientist, who's dead tonight, and nobody knows who did it.

The fight for the Republican nomination roared into South Carolina today, and with its full cast of characters. Mitt Romney's easy win last night in New Hampshire didn't convince any of his rivals to drop out. Instead, they now insist South Carolina's January 21 primary will be a real race, not a coronation.

CNN's Jim Acosta caught up with Rick Santorum a bit earlier in Ridgeway, South Carolina.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know what, this is a long process. Half the people who voted yesterday weren't even Republicans. So the idea that he's wrapped up the Republican nomination because he won by eight votes in Iowa and he won his home state is just silly.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Are you going to challenge his record down here?

SANTORUM: We're going to challenge everything.


KING: Team Romney knows those challengers are coming. Their hope, keep the candidate above the fray and let the TV ads and the surrogates deal with the heated back and forth. CNN's Peter Hamby knows the state's history well. South Carolina takes pride in settling GOP nomination contests. It also has a history of rather bruising campaigns. Peter's in the South Carolina state capital, Columbia, tonight.

Peter, the candidates not named Romney know if he starts 3-0, he's almost impossible to stop. What's the line of attack in South Carolina?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have been hearing the line on Bain Capital over the last few days. We heard Newt Gingrich sort of back off that today.

Look, spending five years down here talking to voters, the fundamental issue with Mitt Romney is trust. Even the voters who are for Mitt Romney are voting for him because they think he can beat Barack Obama, not because they fundamentally believe he will get into office and be a conservative who will repeal Obamacare, who will appoint their kind of judges to the Supreme Court.

So I can tell you there's at least one campaign working on a very tough mail piece that's going to be hitting mailboxes very soon. Whatever these guys can do to soften up Mitt Romney, whether it's on social issues or he's an out-of-touch elitist or he's flip-flopped, any of these things can work over the next 10 days.

KING: So, Peter, Governor Romney lived this four years ago and he exorcised his ghosts in Iowa and he exorcised his demons in New Hampshire. He was in position, strong position early on in South Carolina four years ago. Those attacks, the same type of attacks worked. Is he prepared this time? Does he have a better infrastructure and team in place to rebut them?

HAMBY: He has a much smaller team in place but he's much more confident here. And it's the same reason he was confident in Iowa. Because he didn't try to talk to those voters that care about abortion and same-sex marriage. They might not even be with him in the first place.

He's talking to business-minded voters, moderates, people who are concerned about electability. Yes, 60 percent of voters here are born-again or evangelical. But guess what? Forty percent aren't. And he's still leading his foes among evangelical voters. He's confident he can just talk about the economy in a state where the unemployment rate is almost 10 percent.

I talked to a county chairperson in Spartanburg County today who said he can even win up here in the evangelical upstate because the number one concern here is jobs. And Mitt Romney knows that, and as long as he keeps talking about it, he's going to be OK or at least near the front of the pack in the polls, John.

KING: Interesting 10 days ahead. Peter Hamby live for us on the ground in Columbia tonight, Peter, thank you.

Jon Huntsman insists his third-place showing in New Hampshire will give his campaign new life. But South Carolina's voters are more conservative. And the former Utah governor today began courting them.


JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have creative destruction in capitalism, which has always been a part of capitalism. It becomes a little disingenuous to take on Bain Capital.

I think it's more instructive to look at Governor Romney's record as governor. He was elected to represent his people for four years. What did he do for the economy? He didn't deliver any big, bold economic proposals. I delivered the largest tax cut in the history of my state, a flat tax as well.


KING: Ron Paul now fresh off a second-place showing in New Hampshire. His campaign officials telling CNN they will spend about $1 million down in South Carolina. They're paying for television and radio ads, a big direct mail operation and appearances by the congressman like this one today.


REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What we want to do is reverse the trend of this country for not only a few years or a few elections. It's a reversal of probably 100 years of slipping and sliding away from our Constitution.



KING: And while Governor Romney is campaigning, his team is trying to add an exclamation point to his strong start.

Governor Romney already has the biggest war chest in the Republican field. And I'm told that when his finance team met today in Boston, they set a goal of raising at least, at least $5 million more by the end of this month, the month of January.

And with his business record more and more under fire, Mitt Romney's come up with a line designed to prove it's an asset, not a liability. With an eye on the general election, he started telling people he's created more jobs than President Obama. Here's how he put it this morning on ABC.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Every time we have had a reduction in employment, it was designed to try and make the business more successful and ultimately to grow it, and tens of thousands of jobs created by virtue of the work that we were doing. I'm pretty proud of that record. And, by the way, a heck of a lot better than the president's record -- he lost almost two million jobs during his tenure.


KING: He tried a slightly different variation on CNBC.


ROMNEY: I'm pretty happy to show my record of job creation. Actually my job creation record in the private sector has created more jobs than President Obama has created in the entire country. So I will be happy to post up against him.


KING: Chief business correspondent Ali Velshi joins us from New York.

Ali, let's leave the posting up and the basketball for later. Can Governor Romney back up that claim that in the private sector he created more jobs than President Obama has created in the entire economy the past three years?


First of all, President Obama in his tenure in office which started in January of 2009, the number of jobs lost in that time has been 4.3 million. OK? So if you look at the raw numbers, he's lost a lot -- a lot of jobs have been lost under President Obama's tenure. You can hold him responsible or not.

Here's the thing. Two-thirds of those jobs have been recovered. So President Obama can also talk about job creation. Raw numbers, he's created more jobs than Mitt Romney did.

How many jobs did Mitt Romney create? He claims 100,000 while he was the head of Bain capital. Bain doesn't keep figures on these. These are from major companies like Staples that hired people. They don't know what the numbers are. So, A., we don't know how many Mitt Romney created. B., let me just remind you, President Obama, two- thirds have come back.

At the pace of job creation that we're on that we have been polling economists, it's entirely possible that President Obama could make up the entire 4.3 million job deficit by November. So the trend is not Mitt Romney's friend right now. I don't know whether he's right or wrong, but the trend isn't with him.

KING: And he knows that the Obama campaign, if he is the nominee, -- and let's underscore that, if -- it's still a big if tonight -- but if he's the nominee, he knows they're going to say Bain, like some of the Republicans are saying this week, Bain was heartless. Bain went in and ripped profits out of these companies and laid the workers off, devastated the employment situation. Governor Romney today says President Obama has some first-hand experience at that, too. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: By the way, in the general election I will be pointing out that the president took the reins of General Motors and Chrysler, closed factories, closed dealerships, laid off thousands and thousands of workers. He did it to try and save the business. We also had on occasion to do things that are tough to try and save a business.


KING: Fair comparison?

VELSHI: Yes, absolutely a fair comparison. In fact, the people that the government put into place when they took over General Motors were people from the private equity world. That is exactly how the private equity world works.

It's like burning a forest to enrich the soil kind of thing. It is what they do. There's a valid argument as to whether there should be companies that profit from taking other companies and closing parts down and selling them off for profit. But that is what private equity does.

So until we decide that's either wrong, immoral or illegal, it is what they do. It is what Bain did and what Mitt Romney did. And it is, as he described, what the government of the United States did when it took over General Motors.

KING: We're going to be doing a lot over the next 10 months to keep all of the candidates accountable on these promises on the economy. Ali Velshi is going to be a very busy man.

Ali, appreciate your time tonight.

Now let's take a look ahead at the path ahead in the race for the White House 2012.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here.

Let me walk over to the magic wall.

Gloria, one of the questions people are asking is what are we learning so far? Only two states, but some people say is there enough Republican intensity? We go back to the Iowa caucuses, in 2000, a little more than 87,000, 2008, four years ago, just shy of 120,000. In 2012, Republicans beat that number. So Republicans said, oh, not great, but not so bad.

I would remind you George W. Bush did not win Iowa this year. Democrats won again in 2008. We will see. Iowa's a swing state this time.

Now let's move over to the state of New Hampshire. And again Democrats are crowing. They say this isn't all that impressive if you're going to beat the incumbent president -- 2000, 2008, this is our ballpark number, 248,000 for 2012. Do you read anything into this? Is there any evidence of pro or con intensity gap?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the secretary of state predicted 250,000. So they're kind of on target for that.

But when you think about the overall turnout and you think that almost half of those people were actually independents, that could be a problem for the Republican Party, because there is enthusiasm to get rid of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

Is there as much enthusiasm for their candidates? Now, the polls that we looked at, the exit polls last night, showed that 61 percent of the people said, you know, if Romney were the nominee, that's fine. Over 60 percent said, you know, we're satisfied, pretty satisfied with our candidates. But is it overwhelming at this point? Maybe not.

KING: At this point, maybe not.

So let's look at our next battleground, South Carolina. If Governor Romney can go 3-0, most people think he's very hard to stop. Let's take a look at some of the questions here. Number one, the darker the area here, the higher the percentage of people who self- identify as evangelicals.

In our poll before New Hampshire, Governor Romney was leading among South Carolina evangelicals. If he can break even there, he wins the state. But the question is, do they decide to rally around one candidate?

BORGER: Well, it's interesting listening to what Peter Hamby was saying to you earlier. Evangelicals don't vote on just one issue. Yes, they're skeptical about Mitt Romney because he's a Mormon. They believe that he's not totally dependable on social issues such as abortion.

But evangelical voters vote on the economy. And if Mitt Romney's message on the economy gets through, he could very well win with evangelicals. We just don't know.

KING: The next test of Republican intensity, Republican unity in the great state of South Carolina.

BORGER: Can't wait.

KING: Gloria Borger, thank you.

And still to come here, a pilot explains a video that is now going viral on the Internet. He says despite how this looks, it isn't really all that unsafe. OK.

Plus, some conservatives would prefer one or two candidates quit, so there's one challenger on Mitt Romney's right. Well, Rick Perry joins us next. And if you think he'd consider stepping aside, well, think again.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, I'm sure there's some, you know, supernatural occurrence that could occur. But I can't think of anything in the natural world that would cause me to drop out of the race.




KING: Rick Perry almost quit the Republican presidential race after running a disappointing fifth place in the Iowa caucuses. He then ran an even more distant sixth place last night in New Hampshire.

To be fair, though, Governor Perry didn't compete there in the past week, choosing instead the make his last stand in the state up next, South Carolina.

The Texas governor joins us this evening from The Gun Rack in Aiken, South Carolina.

And, Governor, looking at that backdrop, I get the impression maybe I would better be on my best behavior in this interview here.

PERRY: And this is -- this is just a great example of our constitution and the Second Amendment, John. So it's -- a lot of people in South Carolina and many other states are great believers in that Second Amendment. So, as a matter of fact, I think we've had two of the best gun sale years in American history.

KING: I assume that will be one of the issues in the week ahead.

Speaker Gingrich was quite candid with us here last night. He said South Carolina is a must-win state for him.

For Rick Perry, is it win or go home?

PERRY: Well, we're here to win. I mean that's the -- that's the purpose that we're in the race. So it -- I think the South Carolina voter really resonates with the leadership that we're talking about, about getting this country back on track from the standpoint of who is it that's got the record of creating jobs, who is it that knows how to cut taxes and cut regulations, get America working again.

And -- and I'm it. You know, the -- the -- the question is, do you think if you change one insider that's in the White House now with another insider that it's going to make any difference.

And the answer is no.

KING: As you try to make that case, sir, as you know, a big group of conservatives, Evangelical and other conservatives, are meeting this weekend. And as you know, many of them share your concerns about Governor Romney as the nominee.

If they come out of that meeting -- and many of them are big time, long-time supporters of Rick Perry -- if they come out of that meeting and say conservatives should coalesce around somebody else, say Senator Santorum, are there any circumstances under which you would bow out before the South Carolina primary?

PERRY: Oh, I'm sure there's some, you know, supernatural occurrence that could occur.

But I can't think of anything in the natural world that would cause me to drop out of the race. You know, we're -- we're running on our record. We're running as a leader that will overhaul Washington, D.C. And I'm taking my message to the people of -- of South Carolina and not a small group of individuals, certainly not the media, not a group of establishment Republicans that say here's who needs to be our nominee.

I think the American people and South Carolinians in particular are smart enough to figure out who they want as the next president of the United States.

And I think they want someone with a track record and someone that will stand up and make the hard decisions and the tough decisions, but get America back working again, someone that shares their values, whether it's the standpoint of the Judeo-Christian values that our founding fathers established this country on.

That's what South Carolina voters are going to be looking for.

KING: You've been very tough in recent days about Mitt Romney's tenure as the CEO of Bain Capital, suggesting -- these are my words, not yours -- but that he was heartless and that he was greedy and that this company went in not looking to rescue companies, but to pull out money and to make profits and if the workers lost their jobs, so be it.

I want you to listen to your own tough language.


PERRY: They're just vultures. They're vultures that are sitting out there on the -- on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick. And then they swoop in. They eat the carcass. They leave with that and they leave the skeleton.


KING: Ronald Reagan used to say thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.

What are you trying to say about Governor Romney's character here?

PERRY: Americans are looking for leadership and they're looking for somebody that understands how to create jobs, not somebody that is in the business of destroying jobs.

KING: As you know, much of the Republican establishment is cringing at these attacks on Mitt Romney. You mentioned Wall Street. I want to read you from the editorial page of "The Wall Street Journal" today. It is hardly a liberal mouthpiece, sir, a very conservative newspaper, says: "About the best that can be said about the Republican attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital is that President Obama is going to do the same thing eventually, so GOP primary voters might as well know what's coming. Yet that hardly absolves Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and others for their crude and damaging caricatures of modern business and capitalism. Politics isn't subtle, and these candidates are desperate. But do they have to sound like Michael Moore?"

How do you respond to that, sir?

PERRY: Well, I disagree with their characterization that, number one, that somehow or another we're not just telling the truth. And the fact is, the Obama administration will use this. And we do need to get it out now and talk about it.

But it doesn't sound like Michael Moore. What it sounds like is the people from Gaffney, South Carolina or the people from Georgetown, South Carolina who lost their jobs. The fact is, you can create jobs without destroying a -- a company. And -- and that's what I'm talking about, is I think Americans are really tired of these Wall Streeters that take advantage of Americans.

KING: An interesting 10 days ahead in South Carolina.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas, appreciate your time tonight.

PERRY: Thank you, John. So long.


KING: Governor Perry isn't the only one complaining the Republican establishment is pressuring candidates to tone down the attacks on Governor Romney. In a few minutes, we will ask the party's chairman if it's true and if he's eager for things to be settled quickly.

But next: Check this out. A veteran pilot will explain to us why landing in a crosswind may look scary, but he insists it really isn't so bad.


KING: Welcome back.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And finally tonight, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she took a big swipe at the Tea Pary today. Listen here.


REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): We need to make sure that we tone things down, pariticularly in light of the Tucson tragedy from a year ago. I hesitate to place blame, but I have noticed it take a very precipitous turn towards edginess and a lack of civility with the growth of the Tea Pary Movement.


BOLDUAN: John, you spoke with the head of the Republican Party a short time ago. He says blaming the Tea Party is simply pathetic. Listen here to him.


REINCE PRIEBUS, RNC CHAIRMAN: Well, as usual, I think she's -- she speaks a little too much and went on a little too far, and certainly any insinuation that somehow such a tragedy would occur because of, you know, a movement to get our government and our spending and our debt under control is ridiculous, and I think she ought to apologize and admit the stupidity of that comment. And to take such a tragedy and such a remarkable story and to try to score political points on it -- it's just -- it's pathetic.


BOLDUAN: Some emotional words on both sides, John.

KING: And with all the Republicans looking to next week's South Carolina primary, it's not just them. One person we know is looking at the crowded Republican field is the president, the Democratic incumbent -- the latest on his strategy up next.

Plus, South Carolinians are quickly learning what people in Iowa and New Hampshire already know.


CAM SPENCER, SOUTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN VOTER: I hate to think what it's going to be like once we do get down to the wire.


KING: Campaign ads being fired around the clock, do they really work? Do they change undecided voters' minds?

That's ahead.


KING: Welcome back. We're live tonight from the CNN Election Center. Only half hour ahead, tonight's "Truth" explores the big question in Republican politics.

Would a Romney romp prove the Tea Party a one-hit wonder? Plus the GOP chairman is a big fan of Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment. But is it ready -- just yet anyway -- to complain about the Republican candidates who are breaking it?

And our "Moment You May Have Missed" is must-see TV. Michelle Obama angry? The first lady takes aim at her critics.

President Obama tonight back home in Chicago raising more money for his campaign's war chest. They believe at Team Obama more and more that he'll be spending all those millions against Mitt Romney.

Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin has been working her sources and joins us with more on the president's emerging strategy.

Jess, one thing Team Obama has to be watching closely is all these attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure as the CEO of Bain Capital. They came up in the final 48 hours or so of New Hampshire. At least no evidence of impact there. What's the assessment of the Obama team?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, my sources point to something you've just said, John, which is that it came up in only the last 48 hours. And so they argue that that wasn't enough time to necessarily make a dent. Maybe a convenient argument, but that's what they're saying. They believe that it will have a lasting impact on Mitt Romney going into the general election, and something that President Obama can build on in the general election campaign.

That said, it is important to note that Mitt Romney won among voters in New Hampshire who considered the economy their most important issue. So we'll just have to see how effective Newt Gingrich's attacks on Romney are in South Carolina where he intends to go after him on his jobs record -- John.

KING: And what's their take on the relatively new dynamic in this campaign? They know -- and they'll have plenty of money and pro- Obama groups outside the campaign will have plenty of money, but they're watching the experiment of all these private groups of pro- Romney PAC dumps on Gingrich, now a pro-Gingrich PAC dumping on Romney.

What are they learning about these independent groups or so- called independent group anyway, and all this outside spending?

YELLIN: Well, right now President Obama's team has outraised all comers. But they are absolutely worried about the super PACs on the outside. And -- so my sources tell me that what they're most concerned about is that Romney is somehow able to wrap this up quickly. South Carolina, let's say even maybe Florida, and then his super PACs and the super PACs that support him are able to start spending quickly going negative on President Obama very early.

And then that leaves the president's campaign in a position where they have to choose. Do they spend the money they have to combat that early, or do they save it for later and hope that they can raise that money to make up for it? Because right now the super PACs on the Democratic side do not have nearly the money that the super PACs on the Republican side feel they're capable of raising -- John.

KING: And I suspect the Obama White House will be urging them as legally as they can I guess to raise more and more and more and more. Money, money, money, money.

Jessica Yellin, insights -- important insights from the Obama strategy tonight. Thanks, Jess.

And the candidates on the Republicans have moved on into South Carolina and with them those political TV ads. Here's a snapshot of TV advertising over the last two weeks paid for by the campaigns and those outside groups we're talking about.

What you're seeing now is how much was spent on ads that supported and attacked the candidates. If you look closely they're basically a 50/50 split for Mitt Romney but a different story for Gingrich. Up to now, for every dollar spent to promote Newt Gingrich nearly $6 were spent to knock him down in South Carolina. All those ads just part of the voter outreach by the campaigns.

Tom Foreman went to see what it's like to be a voter in the middle of this political messaging storm in South Carolina.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: South Carolina is under attack.


FOREMAN: Campaign ads from Republican contenders are being fired around the clock now.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is a moral imperative for --

FOREMAN: All aims squarely at undecided voters like Cam Spencer in Charleston.

CAM SPENCER, SOUTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN VOTER: Thank goodness for the mute button.

FOREMAN: And it's not just the TV. She starts receiving robocalls before she can even make her morning coffee.

(On camera): It's 8:30.

SPENCER: It's 8:30.

FOREMAN: And the phone is ringing.

SPENCER: And the phone is ringing.

GINGRICH: I have a jobs and economic growth plan.

SPENCER: I don't feel like it's more than it is in '08 or in '10.

FOREMAN: Yes, but it's still not down to the wire.

SPENCER: Well, that's true, too. I hate to think what it's going to be like once we do get down to the wire.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rick Santorum has been a --

FOREMAN (voice-over): Already she and many others here are finding the onslaught almost inescapable. During her commute to work as a medical researcher, the radio rattles with more.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gingrich attacks Romney because --

FOREMAN: There are also print ads, e-mails, fliers, yard signs. By lunchtime she's already had her fill.

(On camera): Between the ads that you see on TV and hear on the radio and read and get on e-mails, how many of these are you getting a day?

SPENCER: At least 20, or more.

FOREMAN: And what do you expect next week?

SPENCER: Double that.

FOREMAN: Really?

SPENCER: At least.

FOREMAN: Will any of these change your mind?



SPENCER: None. None of the ads.

FOREMAN: Are they wasting their money?

SPENCER: Yes. I believe they are.

FOREMAN (voice-over): She may be on to something. This focus group of undecided voters organized by CNN and Southern Methodist University watched several ads, liked some, disliked others, but generally agreed voters are just being hit with way too many.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seeing a very large increase in ads on YouTube.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As a matter of fact, I change the channel three times and there were different ads but all political on every channel at the same time.

FOREMAN (on camera): Do all these ads make a difference to you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Actually they don't make a difference to me. They somewhat annoy me.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Cam Spencer is still making up her mind whom to vote for. But of one thing she is certain.

(On camera): Are you tired of the ads yet?

SPENCER: Oh, I've been tired of the ads.

FOREMAN (voice-over): But she knows from sun up to sundown, until primary day, it will only get worse.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Charleston, South Carolina.


KING: As the Republican race heads on to South Carolina, the chairman of the Republican National Committee finds himself in the middle of quite an interesting internal party feud. The chairman, Reince Priebus, joins us today from New Orleans.

Mr. Chairman, Speaker Gingrich said this in South Carolina today. He said there's enormous pressure from the establishment in both parties, he said, for candidates not to say certain things.

Have you yourself or anyone on the RNC payroll reached out to the Gingrich or the Perry or the Huntsman campaign, and said, whoa, back off when it comes to Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital?

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICANS NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: No. I mean, I have said repeatedly, John, that my role is not to get in the middle of a primary battle. And the reality is I think our -- the base of our party, the people across America, they're sick and tired of party bosses and people from Washington telling them what to think and how to vote and how to act.

So this is up to the voters of the Republican Party to make these decisions. Now certainly I believe in Reagan's 11th commandment. However, it's not the role of the RNC chairman to start telling people what's good and what's not. I don't -- you know I'm not the --

KING: But if you had --


PRIEBUS: -- all communication here.

KING: But if you believe it that 11th commandment is it fair to say that you would also agree it's not being followed at the moment?

PRIEBUS: Well, you know what, you know, it's for the voters to decide, John. I mean it's sort of like, you know, the Supreme Court, you know, whether something is obscene or not. I mean, you know it when you see it, right? I mean, so it's the same thing here in politics. You know, and with every ad and with every strategy comes a potential upside and a potential downside. And those are the risks and political decisions that these candidates have to make.

KING: So do you view it personally, maybe not as chairman, you've been involved in the party for a long time before you were chairman. Is it fair game to call Mitt Romney as Governor Perry has a vulture capitalist or is it, as Governor Romney says, desperate Republicans who in the end might be -- might be helping President Obama?

PRIEBUS: You know, John, seriously, I don't think this is anything new in American politics. You know, four years ago Hillary Clinton was crying and calling Barack Obama a hypocrite. And those Democrats were out there on Obama's side saying that Hillary didn't have the moral character to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.

So I mean, you know, this stuff happens. You know, Bob Dole, Bush, you know, Bush-Reagan, Hillary and Obama. You know tough primaries are sort of a way of life in American politics. At the end of the day, though, this is going to be about Barack Obama and whether he ought to be fired by the American people.

KING: You know the process pretty well. Some people say it's about delegates. Other people often it's decided by momentum. If Governor Romney goes Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, opens 3-0, is it game set match?

PRIEBUS: Well, you know, that's not for me to decide, John. You know, I certainly -- governor is -- gets his due. Two in a row is pretty good work. But you know, South Carolina is going to be a big matchup. And Florida is coming and then Nevada after that. So as far as we're concerned it's a race to a majority of the delegates at the national convention. And so we'll see who gets there.

KING: What is your take? You mentioned the Clinton-Obama drama of four years ago. Most Democrats would think that in the end Barack Obama was a better, tougher, more seasoned candidate because of the long drawn-out process. But you're running against an unopposed incumbent president right now with a very deep fundraising organization.

What's better for Republicans? A long drawn-out process that might get bloody but would keep your party front and center or do you think it would be better to wrap this up relatively quickly so whoever the nominee is can focus on unifying the party and raising a boat load of money?

PRIEBUS: Well, John, I mean we have more cash in the bank than the Democratic National Committee right now. So as much talk as you hear about all their fundraising, we've got more cash in the bank than they do. So I think we're doing pretty well and we're doing well because people want to make sure that Barack Obama is fired.

So -- but as far as what I choose, you know, I've always said, you know, I think primaries are good for our party. I maintain that. I think tough primaries are good. I don't think a little bit of drama is bad. I think it's the opposite. So you know I don't mind if this thing takes a little while. But certainly whatever the case is, I think the first question that Americans are going to ask themselves and why I keep coming back to this, it's not a talking point, it's just the facts. People are first going to ask themselves whether Barack Obama has lived up to the promises that he made to the American people. And when people answer that question no, then the next question is, OK, did the Republicans provide an intelligent, articulate alternative? And the answer to that is going to be clearly yes.

KING: Reince Priebus is the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Chairman, thanks for your time tonight.

PRIEBUS: Thank you, sir.

KING: Still ahead, tonight's "Truth." Why the next 10 days will be a defining moment in the Republican Party.

Plus unannounced guest at the White House. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stopped by. We'll tell you why. Stay right there.


KING: You're looking right there, that's the Massachusetts governor -- former governor, Mitt Romney in Columbia, South Carolina, tonight. A very important friend behind him. The governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley. She endorses him.

Ten days from now South Carolina will decide whether Mitt Romney opens this race 3-0. If so he'd be hard to stop, which brings us to tonight's "Truth." And let's begin the discussion with the obvious.

Newt Gingrich is not speaking from a position of strength at the moment. Back-to-back fourth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, well, they speak for themselves. In sports you don't ask the losing teams or coaches for the keys to winning. But the former speaker deserves points for candor, telling us yesterday right here he now views South Carolina as a must-win state. Today he framed it this way.


GINGRICH: I believe the next 10 days are as important as any 10 days we have seen in modern American politics. I believe the South Carolinians are either going to center in and pick one conservative or by default we're going to send a moderate on to the nomination.


KING: Now perhaps a bit of hyperbole there. Some pretty big things have happened in modern American politics. But here's tonight's "Truth." The next 10 days are a defining moment. Choosing time for Republican Party that's in the middle of an identity crisis. That choice belongs specifically to South Carolina Republicans who can anoint Mitt Romney as their de facto presidential nominee or decide not so fast.

Governor Romney has the biggest personal stake in that decision. But the rest of us are about to learn a lot about how much and how fast the Republican Party is changing. Here's one way to look at it. Is this 1996 or 2008, meaning after a few bumps and bruises the party hands the nomination to the guy next in line? You know, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney. There's a long tradition of that in the GOP.

Or is this 2010 when the Tea Party emerged with the "ignore tradition" and "damn the establishment" attitude that bruised a lot of Republican egos yet powered all those dramatic GOP election gains.

So far, tradition seems to be trumping the Tea Party approach. Governor Romney hardly a Tea Party darling. Yet in his second time on the presidential track, the former Massachusetts governor has exorcised the demons of early 2008. First Iowa, now New Hampshire.

Is it his turn? South Carolina will tell us either yes or not so fast in just 10 days. And truth is, that vote will tell us a lot more. Will evangelicals unite around one Romney opponent or spread their votes as we've seen so far?

Will the Tea Party stop the establishment's rally around Romney movement or does the big movement of 2010 have less sway already? Will GOP voters, especially downscale rural whites, critical in several big fall battlegrounds agree with the criticism of Romney's business record or will they embrace Romney's suggestion it's a sign of desperation?


ROMNEY: President Obama is going to try and put free enterprise on trial. But you know Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are going to be the witnesses for the prosecution. I'm not worried about that.


KING: Should he be worried? Well, truth is, that is just one of South Carolina's rather consequential choices.

Let's get some more perspective now from CNN contributor, editor of conservative blog, Erick Erickson, the Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer, and senior advisor for the Romney campaign, Mark DeMoss.

Amy, I want to start with you because coming out of 2010 and into 2012 everybody said wow.


KING: The Tea Party was the biggest new element, the surging element in the Republican Party. And forgive me but it's pretty obvious, Tea Party did pretty good in Iowa in 2010. It was the Tea Party element in New Hampshire, a pretty strong one, in 2010.

Mitt Romney is not a darling when you talk to Tea Party activists and yet he's 2-0 heading into another state where the Tea Party was a booming force in 2012. Will we see it this year? KREMER: I think South Carolina is going to be a game changer. Because I think that's where you're going to really see the power of the Tea Party movement. And like you said, we saw it in 2010 with their state elections there and then going into Florida you're going to see the same thing again.

You know I've talked to Governor Romney and his staff. And you know, the thing with the Tea Party movement is the mandate. And the people across this country don't want a mandate regardless if it comes from state or federal government, and he's going to have to reconcile that.

But I can tell you this. The Tea Party movement is saying not so fast. You cannot just shove these candidates down our throats and expect us to take it. You know we're going to be involved in this process. We're going to have a say in the matter and I think we're going to be influential on what happens next week.

KING: If he wins in South Carolina, will those words, as well intended as they are, prove false in the sense that you win in Iowa, you win in New Hampshire, so you've won in the Midwest, in the northeast, then you win in the south. History says you win the South Carolina primary, as long as any of us have been alive, you're the Republican nominee.

KREMER: Right.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You are, but keep in mind that the conventional wisdom says yes, but also history is different this time because the rules have changed for the first time since the (INAUDIBLE) of modern electoral politics. Only 2.01 percent of delegates will be picked through South Carolina and all of the delegates are going to be proportional until April. After April all of a sudden become the winner-take-all states, 60 percent of delegates won't be picked until April 1st and beyond.

So the rules are somewhat different. But conventional wisdom is so soaked in everyone's psyche, the money is going to dry up for all these other candidates unless someone has a very strong showing against Mitt Romney headed into Florida, the money is going to dry up and you know, conventional wisdom can be -- fly out the window as far as the new shakeup is but at the same time the money is not.

KING: So, Mark, you're a senior adviser to Governor Romney. A proud conservative yourself. You're standing next to a Tea Party leader who says we can't stomach this mandate. And you talk to grassroots Tea Party people. They'll raise other concerns about Governor Romney.

If he wins in South Carolina, if he's the nominee, he's in a competitive election against a very strong Democratic incumbent from a -- maybe you can cite the economic record, but have yet to raise the money, has a good organization, you need her votes. You need all those Tea Party voters.

How? How does Governor Romney say look, you need to be there for me, you need to not only just vote for me, you need to volunteer, you need to help, we need your passion?

MARK DEMOSS, FOUNDER, DEMOSS GROUP: Well, he may not be every group's or every individual's darling, but I think he's awfully attractive and polls show that he's attractive. I mean, he won last night among evangelicals, among people that strongly support the Tea Party and among those that identified themselves as strongly conservative, even those who identified themselves as strongly conservative on social -- moral and social issues, he won.

So you know it's -- yes, I would acknowledge that he's not everybody's first choice, but he's -- I think he's an attractive candidate. I think he's increasingly so and did something last night that's never been done.

KING: He did make history. No one -- no non-incumbent has won Iowa and then New Hampshire. Help with the right words. What is this? Is it -- forget the names of the candidates for a minute. You know since George W. Bush -- since you lost the Republican presidency, since he left office, he wasn't terribly popular within this own party when he left office.

KREMER: Right.

KING: You know, McCain loses the last election. We have a party that has an identity crisis. And that's not a bad thing. I don't say that's a bad thing. That grassroots, if you can go back to Goldwater, Reagan, it happens when you're out of power. Where are we now? Is there an open wound in the party? Is it a civil war? Is it a polite struggle?

KREMER: I don't think it's -- I wouldn't call it a civil war, but the Tea Party started because people were fed up and angry with both political parties, but especially the Republican Party because they've gotten away from their conservative principles and values. And we have changed the narrative. I mean never before have you even heard Democrats talking about cutting spending, so we have driven that narrative and we're forcing them right to stand on those conservative principles and values.

I want to go back to what we're talking about why things have changed. When Michele Bachmann got out of the race last week, I think all of a sudden, the people in this movement realized, you know what, two of the most conservative candidates we had -- Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain -- have now stepped out. We're left with this field. Sarah Palin is not getting in.

There's no one that excites the base and puts the energy in like Sarah Palin, so we're going to have to choose from these candidates and right now we see the establishment and the mainstream media pushing a candidate and if we're going to engage now is the time to do it.

KING: If you include me in there, I'm not pushing a candidate.

KREMER: No. No, but --

KING: I'm citing history. No, I'm citing history, though. I'm citing history.

ERICKSON: John, you -- literally you can blame George Bush for this. He didn't have a successor in 2008. The party was not able to go through a cathartic process of either accepting Bush's vision for the party or rejecting it through a potential successor. So now we're having to refight battles that shouldn't have been fought in the first place if there was a nominee in 2008 coming from the Bush administration.

Romney to a degree is being caught in the crossfire and to some degree it's unfair for him, what is happening.

KING: You know -- you know post Dole's lost, post McCain's loss, everybody said some Republicans just stayed home. Are you convinced Governor Romney can convince them, maybe you don't love me, but you need to help me because President Obama is our opponent?

DEMOSS: Well, I sure -- I hope that the -- that the enterprise is big enough, grand enough for -- to bring folks together. I mean, look, there's never been a candidate in the history of the world that any person has agreed with on every issue and you won't find it. I don't agree with my wife on every issue. We've been married 24 years. I love her more than anybody in the world.

So it's about choices, as you said. People presented themselves for this process. They've gone through it. Some had stepped out, some are still in, and someone is going to be president in November.

KING: Maybe you guys can go out from the corner, we'll get a first experiment on how this unification might work. We're not giving anyone the nomination yet. Ten days to South Carolina.

Mark, Amy, Erick, thanks for coming in tonight. It is a fascinating race still.

And we're going to show you coming up, the "Moment You Missed." Michelle Obama dismisses the idea she's, quote, "an angry black woman."

Plus, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie spotted in the Oval Office. We know you want to know why they went there.

And take a peak at this. President Obama, home in Chicago. He doesn't have an opponent, but he's trying to raise a lot of money. We'll tell you that.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A law that says equal day's work should mean an equal day's pay because our daughters --



KING: Normally, we end the program with "One Moment You May Have Missed." Well, today, we have two.

Kate Bolduan is back with us.

Madame, you go first.


A big slice of Hollywood came to the White House today. Take a look at these photos. You know those people. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seen through the windows of the Oval Office. A senior White House official tells CNN that Pitt and Jolie were in Washington, John, to screen a new movie. A movie that Angelina Jolie directed, having to do with Bosnian war crimes.

So what do you have?

KING: Who's he?


BOLDUAN: Exactly, John. You're so -- how I love --

KING: Venus, Mars, Venus, Mars, you get it. All right, one more. One more here.

Today's "Moment You Might Have Missed." Some damage control by the first lady. Listen here.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: You know, I guess it's more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman and a -- you know, but that's been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced that I'm some angry black woman.


KING: That's all for us tonight. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.