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Fluid Arizona Race; President Obama's Faith

Aired February 21, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening from Mesa, Arizona, the site of tomorrow's CNN Arizona Republican presidential debate.

Tonight, the issue that won't go away, President Obama's faith. Mitt Romney labels the Obama agenda secular. And the Reverend Franklin Graham says Islam is getting a free pass from this president.

Also, with just a week to go before Arizona's primary, our brand- new polling tonight show as fluid two-way race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

And why wait in line at Starbucks when you can inhale your morning jolt?

We begin tonight with presidential politics, new numbers that underscore just how important our big debate here is tomorrow night and a new twist in the campaign conversation that is both curious and familiar.

First, the new numbers. A brand-new CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll shows a statistical dead heat here in Arizona, 36 percent for Mitt Romney, 32 percent for the surging Rick Santorum. Add in a small Santorum lead in Michigan, which also votes next Tuesday, and what you get is a tense, volatile GOP race as the final four candidates prepare for their first debate in nearly a month.

In a moment, how the tightness of the race is playing out among the candidates, but first a campaign commentary is stirring controversy.

Listen here to Franklin Graham, the son of the Reverend Billy Graham, when asked on MSNBC just this morning if he can say categorically that the president is not a Muslim.


REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM, SAMARITAN'S PURSE: I can't say categorically, because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.



GRAHAM: Well, we see the Arab spring. And coming out of the Arab spring, the Islamists are taking control of the Middle East. Barack Obama is an incredible man. He's got a lot of ability. And he's got the power of the White House. He could be speaking to these countries right now demanding that they protect the Christians in those countries. And he's been quiet about it.


KING: CNN chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin joins us from Washington.

Jess, you asked the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, about Franklin Graham's comments this morning. What did he say?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, he essentially dismissed the entire question and tried to stay above the fray.

He said that he asked the president -- he talked to the president this morning and -- quote -- "Amazingly, the president didn't address the Franklin Graham comments." And he said that the president is focused on the job at hand, which is focusing on the economy, the issues that are important to the American people.

He was asked earlier about some of Rick Santorum's comments on the campaign trail as well about the president's theology. And to that he said that, you know, the president has made it clear that he's a Christian, and that it's up to news reporters, producers and our editors to decide whether these are stories or not, essentially turning it back on the media whether this is something we need to be talking about, John. Familiar.

KING: Jess, they can turn it back on us. They can say it's out of bounds. But I assume both at the White House and perhaps more importantly at the Obama campaign they think this tone, this shift is happening for a reason.

YELLIN: Absolutely. And they know that this is -- they believe this is politics at play, no doubt.

And the general sense, though, is that this is not helpful to the Republican field. There is a larger sense that there is a negativity in the Republican field that is hurting the Republicans and once it gets into a general election mode, this sort of dialogue doesn't win over those key swing voters and whether or not it comes up in the general election, it doesn't really play to the Republican candidate's benefit, John.

KING: Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, Jess, thanks.

Back to the Republican campaign trail now, there is absolutely no doubt Mitt Romney is feeling the heat. He prefers most days to draw contrast with President Obama on economic issues. But with Senator Santorum gaining important ground among conservatives in both Michigan and Arizona, Governor Romney today took his turn in the campaign culture war. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You expect the president of the United States to be sensitive to that freedom and to protect it. And unfortunately, perhaps because of the people the president hangs around with and their agenda, a secular agenda, they have fought against religion.


KING: Our senior correspondent, Joe Johns, is covering the Romney campaign.

Joe, this is not the territory Governor Romney prefers to -- so if he's going into culture wars, religion, secular, an indication that he's starting to feel his poll numbers falling?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's certainly all about Rick Santorum.

And, look, I mean, talking to people inside the campaign and outside the campaign, John, you really get the sense that what they're saying is the more this campaign talks about social issues, the better Santorum does. I think it's also true that a lot of people believe Mitt Romney was trying to remain more moderate, simply because if he got the nomination it would be a shorter stretch to appeal to those voters in the middle, those independent voters come general election time.

But now this is Michigan. This is a state where the campaign understands if they don't win here, it's going to be a very tough row to hoe for Mitt Romney, quite frankly. And the belief, I think, is that he can no longer be coy about these social issues and he's simply got to speak to them, John.

KING: And, Joe, let's listen to something else Governor Romney said today.


ROMNEY: I can assure you, as someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance and religious freedom and the right to one's own conscience, I will make sure that we never again attack religious liberty in the United States of America if I'm president. Thank you.



KING: Joe, he didn't use the term directly, but that was a very rare allusion to Governor Romney -- from Governor Romney there to his Mormon faith.

JOHNS: Right. And he really doesn't talk about it very much on the campaign trail at all, as you know, John. He just hasn't gotten specific, even though we know he's given a lot of money to the Mormon Church.

He was also a lay official in the church. It's obvious, though, that there are some concerns out there, and among them, the polls that show among evangelical voters there's something like 17 percent, maybe a few more, maybe a few less, who just would not vote for a Mormon. So he's got that problem.

And he hasn't talked about the religion much. But if you listen to that sound bite, it was very carefully couched in the language of religious liberty, which is something apparently they think people will go for.

KING: Joe Johns in the important battleground of Michigan, which like Arizona votes a week from Tuesday.

Joe Johns, thanks so much tonight.

Rick Santorum was in Michigan much of this week, but he arrived in Arizona today, introducing himself here to a Phoenix audience as -- quote -- "a guy from a steel town' and a fighter he says in the mold of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Someone who's been fighting across the board, not just on one or two issues, but has been a conservative believing in the founding principles, the Reagan doctrines, a real, authentic conservative who cannot just win this election, but in so doing do so based on a vision for this country that is different than the status vision of Barack Obama. Make it about big things.


KING: More on the Arizona campaign and our new polling numbers in just a moment.

But team Obama will tell you one reason the tone of the GOP race is changing in recent days is because it's getting harder and harder for Republicans to talk critically about the economy.

To that end, today was an important, if symbolic day on Wall Street. For the first time since May 2008, the Dow industrials crossed the psychologically important 13000 mark.

Chrystia Freeland is global editor at large for Reuters and is here now with some perspective.

Chrystia, so up over 13000, and then the Dow by the end of the day had dipped back down a bit, but how big of a deal is this?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, GLOBAL EDITOR AT LARGE, REUTERS: I think this is a really big deal. So May 2008, that was just as the financial crisis was really starting to bite.

We had had Bear Stearns, but not Lehman yet. I remember talking to some really scared Wall Street people then, saying will the Dow ever get above 13000 again? So I think this is really important. And I think you're absolutely right, John, to say it really pulls the rug out from under that core Republican argument that President Obama has made the economy worse than it was when he took over.

KING: And yet there's a bit of an irony here in that the Dow is at its high mark of the Obama presidency at the very moment gas prices are at their high mark of the Obama presidency, up every day now, Chrystia, for the past two weeks. Any relief in sight?

FREELAND: I think that that is the big danger. The price of oil is now above $105 a barrel. That seems to be driven primarily by geopolitical issues, concerns about the standoff with Iran.

And if things get worse with Iran, which is obviously a possibility, then I think you can see the oil price shoot up even higher. And all of that healing that we're seeing in the U.S. economy, seeing reflected in the stock market, will be undone.

KING: It's almost a tug-of-war, if you will, the potential drag of energy prices competing against the potential psychological and boosting effect of a higher Dow and somewhat lower unemployment, right?

FREELAND: Yes. I think that's absolutely right.

And I think that it's going to pose a really difficult challenge for the White House because, of course, U.S. policy and Israel's policy can have a real impact on what happens with Iran, and therefore a real impact on the U.S. economy and probably on the presidential election. So this is one of those moments when domestic politics, the economy, and geopolitics are all intersecting really in Tehran.

KING: Important perspective.

Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, Chrystia, thank you so much.

And this story just into CNN. Senior administration officials are telling us the Obama administration's new corporate tax reform plan will be unveiled tomorrow. But there's an interesting twist. We're told the plan will come from the Treasury Department, not from the White House. We will watch for that tomorrow.

The Supreme Court's taking a case that could bring huge changes in the country. It involves a student who claims she's the victim of discrimination because she's white -- details in a minute.

And later, an incident that has Afghans furious and top U.S. officials apologizing.


KING: A student who says she was rejected from a university because she's white will have her case heard by the Supreme Court. This affirmative action case has the potential to change the way college admissions work from coast to coast. That's just one case on an explosive election-year Supreme Court docket, alongside the new federal health care law championed by President Obama, and of course this state Arizona's tough new immigration law.

A lot to talk about with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeff, let's start with this Texas affirmative action case. How significant?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Huge. This is just an absolutely huge case, because this law was settled in 2003, Sandra Day O'Connor's most famous opinion as a justice, where she said, yes, it is permissible for public universities to include race as one factor in admissions.

Clearly, the conservatives who are now on the Supreme Court object to that decision, and they have five votes now. It seems to me very likely that affirmative action in public education is on its way out with this case.

KING: You say on its way out. That would be important as we watch that one play out in an election year.

Another big, important election-year case is the president's health care law. Conservatives say no matter how this one goes, they think it will help gin up turnout. But let's focus on the law. What is the big issue before the justices?

TOOBIN: Well, the issue is, does the federal government have the power under the United States Constitution to force Americans to buy health insurance, the individual mandate? Is that a permissible federal power?

Now, if you look at the history of the Constitution in this area, it seems very likely that the federal government does have this power. The Commerce Clause is a very broad power. Even some very influential Republican judges like Laurence Silberman and Jeffrey Sutton have said this law is constitutional.

So I would say the betting of people who follow this is that the court will actually uphold President Obama's health care plan. But that's a big one. And that will be decided before the election. The affirmative action case is going to be decided after.

KING: And, as you know, Jeff, the Arizona immigration law, SB- 1070, set off a lot of controversy in this state and across the country and then some copycat laws. The issue before the justices is what?

TOOBIN: The issue there is, is immigration a principally federal responsibility? Is this an area where the states have a right to regulate? Or has the federal government preempted, that's the term of art they use, has the federal government preempted this area and are these laws unconstitutional for that reason? This is an area where I think it's harder to predict, although the conservatives generally give a lot of deference to state power. And I think it's likely that these laws -- it's more likely that these laws will be upheld, rather than overturned.

KING: And, Jeff, because of the focus on the economy, because of the focus in recent days on social issues like contraception, we haven't paid as much attention to what some of the candidates are saying from time to time in the Republican race about the courts. It's an issue Newt Gingrich talks about a lot.

Today, Senator Rick Santorum talking about one Democratic appointee on the Supreme Court. Let's listen.


SANTORUM: When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked the question whether she would recommend to a country forming that they should adopt the United States Constitution as their constitution, and she said no.

But that's what the president believes. That's what the left in America believes. That's what progressives believe, that this document has lived past its expiration date.


KING: Political statement, more of a legal statement there, Jeff, but what do you make of that?

TOOBIN: It was actually very interesting. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was invited to Egypt by the new government there to give advice on how they should reform their legal system in the post-Mubarak era.

And they asked her, well, do you think we should revise our constitution in line with yours? And she said no. Well, you know, the South African constitution, which is actually a newer constitution, post-apartheid, she said that's probably a better model for you.

I think it's a very interesting comment by her. I'm not surprised it's controversial. But it's important to remember also that Ruth Ginsburg is an appointee of Bill Clinton, not of Barack Obama. So I'm not sure how much he can be associated with her comments.

KING: We will see. They all carry their pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution, not the South African constitution around the Republican campaign trail.

TOOBIN: They do.

KING: Jeff Toobin, appreciate your help and insights tonight, a very big year for the Supreme Court.

TOOBIN: Indeed. KING: We will be in touch quite a bit.

Up next here: The disgraced global financial official Dominique Strauss-Kahn tries to new tactic to clear his name, answering questions about prostitutes.

And get this. U.S. health officials now have some questions about a new way to get your jolt of caffeine.


KING: Welcome back.


KING: Here in Arizona, a dead heat between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. We're taking a closer look at our brand-new polling numbers, dissecting in part how the Tea Party factors, and factors in big.

Plus, your drinking habits may influence your kids. But a new study says movies, movies may have a bigger impact. Don't tell the cast of "Bridesmaids."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I'm sorry. Excuse me. Could I have a glass of alcohol when you get a chance?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Two double seven and sevens.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: You will like it. It's sweet.



KING: In this half-hour: a big debate here tomorrow night. And our latest poll reveals Arizona's Tea Party could have a big impact in this state's razor-close race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

Afghan outrage and rapid U.S. apologies as the military confirms Korans and Islamic religious materials were confiscated and then burned. But the military says there's a valid reason.

And if you want to stay awake, how about a shot of caffeine up your nose? We will take a closer look at a new product that has government inspectors asking questions.

Only one week to go until the Arizona primary and just one night until our big debate here in Mesa, our new poll shows a virtual dead head. Mitt Romney leads Rick Santorum 36 percent to 32 percent, a four-point margin that is well within the poll's statistical sampling era. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here with a closer look at the race.

And, Gloria, when you look a race so close, you dig deep into the numbers. You try to figure out what's driving it. Some of it, some of Santorum's surge is because he has a slight edge among the Tea Party?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, some of it, slightly, a surge among the Tea Party, certainly an edge among evangelicals.

But the real problem for Mitt Romney is that he really hasn't caught on with any of these groups in a big way. And that's why the former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party Randy Pullen came out today and said there's no enthusiasm for Mitt Romney. And he's a Romney supporter, John.

And I think we can say that we have seen that throughout the primaries and caucuses.

KING: You see that lack of enthusiasm for Governor Romney. One of the things that should work, anyway, could work to Romney's advantage is 40 percent, maybe half of electorate here voted early.



KING: And so Santorum has surged in the last week or so. Might Romney benefit from the fact that some of his people, maybe if they have changed their mind, it might be too late?

BORGER: Right.

This is where organization comes in. This is where money is important. And Romney has both of those things, although he's running through his money pretty quickly. But if you're organized enough, you can get people out to vote early. And that will really help him.

One other thing, John, that's so important is, of course, how much you spend on advertising. We have done a little digging today to try and figure out what the differential is between Romney and Santorum. And we figure out, between the campaigns and the super PACs, there's about a 10-1 difference, that Romney will outspend Santorum by that much money. That should help him in the end. Now, this is between now and the primary on Tuesday.

KING: The big debate here tomorrow night. Obviously, the last word -- the last big word for these candidates before Tuesday's voting, where Super Tuesday. It's been almost a month since they've shared a stage. How high are the stakes? How high is the bar for the candidates tomorrow night?

BORGER: Well, it's very high. You know, if you look at this poll, more than 30 percent of the people we polled said that they could yet change their mind.

And so it's clear to me they'll be watching you on that stage. They're going to be watching that debate. Because they probably want to see how Romney and Santorum do up against each other and whether in fact Newt Gingrich is really still in this race heading into Super Tuesday.

And you know, Santorum, I presume, is going to be center stage this time. And he's going to be in a different position than he's been in the past.

KING: First debate as an equal, if not the frontrunner...

BORGER: Frontrunner, maybe.

KING: ... in the surge right now. We'll see. Gloria will be here with us, of course, throughout the night and throughout the debate. Gloria, thanks.

And because Senator Santorum is now the surge candidate. A 2008 college address by Santorum coming to light. And some think it could be trouble for the former Pennsylvania senator. In this speech, Santorum warned the United States was being targeted by Satan. Listen.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Satan has done so by attacking the great institutions of America. Using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the roots to attack all of these strong plants that have so deeply rooted in American tradition.


KING: CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash tracking this story. She's back in Washington. Dana, let's listen first to another snippet from Santorum's speech.


SANTORUM: This is not a political war at all. It's not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies, Satan, would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America.


KING: Dana, you've been covering the former senator for years. You know the rhetoric he likes to use. Are you surprised by these statements, the tone and the use of the word "Satan"?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not entirely. You know this, John, that Rick Santorum is a deeply religious person. He sees the world through the prism of his religion, Catholicism. He is very up front about that. He has really been like that as long as I have known him covering him for, I guess, nearly a decade now.

But what we did hear here, the use of the word "Satan," is somebody who is clearly comfortable with the forum in which he is speaking. He was speaking to Ave Maria University. It's a very conservative, Catholic university in Florida. So he knew his audience.

And, you know, talking about things like the Father of Lies. That is definitely not something you hear him talking about on the campaign trail now.

And what is interesting is, talking to people who are close to him, they have said, you know, maybe part of the issue, John, is that it was 2008. He had already been defeated from the Senate. He didn't necessarily have the political antenna up, didn't have the political people around him that he normally had to maybe reel him back from some of that very stark rhetoric that is kind of going through his veins.

But the Santorum campaign, they call this -- all of the hoopla around this ridiculous. They say what is it? A news flash that Rick Santorum believes in God? They said, "I don't think so."

KING: And but so Dana, we can assume people go back and look for these things and they're circulated normally by people who either work for another candidate or don't support Senator Santorum in this case. The question is does it help or hurt at a time he's surging in the polls?

BASH: I think in the short term, help. And this time long term, maybe hurt. If you talk to Republicans around town, if you talk to Republicans who are very focused on big picture, on trying to beat Barack Obama, they say that they are concerned about this kind of thing.

I was talking to many people up on Capitol Hill last week who said that they were concerned about their former colleague because he is a, quote, "culture warrior." And this is exactly the kind of point that they were trying to make.

In the short term, if you're talking about the kind of Republican primary voters that are out there and caucus voters, this might very well appeal to them. But in the long term, there is a lot of concern among Republicans that this will turn off some of the independents, some of the voters who don't like to hear their politicians talking in such -- such stark religious language, even if they believe it internally.

KING: And proof as you rise in the polls, you get more attention, and people do a lot more digging. Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, thanks.

Protesters in Afghanistan shout "Death to America" after NATO troops burned copies of the Quran. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)



KING: Furious demonstrators lit fires. They hurled rocks outside the Bagram Air Field where the holy books were burned. First military officials said it was an accident. Now they say some of the books had extremist inscriptions in them.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has been watching all of this unfold. Barbara, how did this happen?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, what happened is that the military says they were gathering up these religious materials to dispose of them. And they were disposed of inappropriately. Very wrongly, the U.S. military says, these materials, including some of the holy Qurans, were taken away for burning.

But why were they gathering up the material? That perhaps is even a deeper question at the moment. And as you say, U.S. officials acknowledging that some of these writings, some of these books that were in a library at the detention facility on Bagram, they had extremist writings inside of them and extremist inscriptions. They also found separate extremist literature in the detention library that apparently came from outside Afghanistan.

So one of the major questions now on top of everything else that has happened is how did this extremist material get inside one of the most secure compounds in Afghanistan -- John.

KING: And Barbara, one of the worries always is not only just the fallout in Afghanistan but around the Muslim world. What does the military do to try to contain that, or can they?

STARR: You bet. And they have learned the lessons in some previous cases similar to this. Moving very quickly, General John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the State Department and the White House all coming out very strongly today, saying they apologize for the Qurans and the religious material being burned. It is wrong. They're going to start training U.S. troops in the proper disposal of these types of religious materials.

Another incident, another round of apologies to the Afghan people and people of the Islamic faith, John.

KING: Barbara Starr live for us on this sensitive story at the Pentagon. Barbara, thank you.

Now, maybe you've seen those new inhalable caffeine shots, the ones that promise a quick energy boost with just a few huffs. But the federal government doesn't know if the shots are safe. Here's CNN aviation and regulation correspondent Lindsay O'Leary. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LINDSAY O'LEARY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): AeroShot's appeal is not exactly subtle. A spritz of lime-flavored powdered caffeine in a canister so small it could be on your key chain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd be down to use it, to tell you the absolute truth. I feel like a lot of the energy drinks out there are just as bad for you or whatever it is. I don't know. I've seen people using it.

O'LEARY: One hundred milligrams of caffeine per canister. That's more than a Red Bull, less than a Frappuccino, plus a dose of vitamin B. The company calls it breathable energy. It's sold in Massachusetts and New York and has no age restrictions. That and the potential to mix it with alcohol...


REP. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: When you drink that cup of coffee, that's OK. But what about kids who go to bars and take several shots of AeroShots so they can drink more?

O'LEARY: Here's the key. Like the popular five-hour energy drink, AeroShot is sold as a dietary supplement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not introducing anything that has not been really thoroughly tested as far as safety is concerned. And so we're using active ingredients that have a very long record of safety and safety testing. And nothing more than that, actually.

O'LEARY: But that doesn't mean the government tested it. When a new drug is created, the manufacturers must prove to the FDA that it's safe in order to sell it. With dietary supplements like AeroShot, companies do their own testing. There's no government approval process.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Manufacturers are free basically to sell almost any product they want and make almost any claims they want about dietary supplements. And the law really should be tighter in order to protect consumers.


O'LEARY: So John, essentially what happens here is if the government wants to get these products off the shelves, they actually have the burden of demonstrating that they are unsafe. They have to prove it to the consumer.

KING: And so can we answer -- given the debate, can we answer the bottom-line question, how dangerous or is this product dangerous?

O'LEARY: It basically depends on how much you take. If you took one, that would be the equivalent of about a cup of coffee. And that, within most medical guidelines, is completely safe. The Mayo Clinic says, look, you probably shouldn't exceed 300 milligrams, so that's the question of taking three, four, five to stay up all night if you mix it with booze. Then it becomes dangerous. As just one of these little things probably not.

I can see in a campaign a lot of reporters and campaign staffer trying to figure out whether that's good or dangerous or whatever. Lizzy, thanks so much for your help. We'll keep on top of this one.

The evangelist Franklin Graham calls President Obama, quote, "a son of Islam," another example of private faith questioned in the public arena. Coming up, we talk "Truth" about the tone of those conversations.

And check this out. A lunch menu from the Titanic on the very day it hit the iceberg. Well, it's on the auction block. We'll tell you how it survived the disaster.

But before we go to break, a shout-out to the Mesa Arts Center right here in Arizona. Instructors there went through the delicate process of glass blowing just for us to craft a CNN vase. Fell on the ground as they were finishing it up. But as you can see, no worse for the wear.


KING: Conversations about God and politics often are tricky. And people of good faith can have very different interpretations of what they hear. Of late if you're listening to the presidential campaign or commentary about it, well, there's a lot to consider. Here's Rick Santorum on President Obama.


SANTORUM: It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.


KING: Now, Mitt Romney chooses different words, but he seems to be trying to make essentially the same point.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And unfortunately, perhaps because of the people the president hangs around with and their agenda, a secular agenda, they have fought against religion.


KING: Now, are the Republican contenders questioning the president's faith? They say no. Well, there's no debate that Franklin Graham is trying to raise a question or two here.


FRANKLIN GRAHAM, FOUNDER, SAMARITAN'S PURSE: I'm just saying the Muslim world, Muslim world, Islam, they see him as a son of Islam.


KING: Sound familiar? Here's a flashback: August 2010.


GRAHAM: He was born a Muslim. His father gave him an Islamic name. Now, it's obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Mohammed, and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't.


KING: Now, even taking the president at his word, the Reverend Graham says he wishes the president had a different Christian education.


GRAHAM: I wish the president over the years had had a chance to be involved in a real strong Bible-teaching church. I don't think Reverend Jeremiah's church was a place where he got grounded in God's word.


KING: Now, maybe it's coincidence -- maybe not -- that we're hearing a lot more about the president's faith or theology at a time the economy appears to be getting a firmer footing. That's certainly what team Obama thinks.

Top Obama strategist David Axelrod put it this way in a conversation earlier today. He told me, quote, "The economy is getting better and they," meaning the Republicans, "are getting panicky. "Faith catnip" is the term Axelrod used to describe language questioning the president's faith. Is that fair?

Again, these conversations can be tricky, and our interpretations are shaped both by personal shape and personal politics. So here's tonight's "Truth." There's nothing wrong with a conversation about how faith guides and doesn't guide our candidates for high office. But it should be a careful and a respectful conversation. And sadly, we don't have many of those in our politics today.

Joining us now to talk about this and other issues in Mesa, Arizona, Ed Montini. He's a columnist with the "Arizona Republic." Jeff Zeleny, he's the "New York Times" national political correspondent. And Cathi Herrod is a Santorum supporter and the president of the Center for Arizona Policy.

Let me start with you, Cathi, as a conservative here in Arizona, when you hear Senator Santorum who you support say -- question the president's theology, you hear Governor Romney saying they're secular. And Franklin Graham today saying he's a son of Islam and that the president of the United States somehow is giving Islam a pass, in his words. Is that the campaign you want to have? Is that the debate you want to have about President Obama?

CATHI HERROD, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR ARIZONA POLICY: John, I think what the voters are going to look at is where the candidates stand on the issues. And that's what's of importance to people of faith. I think whether someone says they're a Christian, God looks upon the heart, not man. To me that's not the question. The question is where do the candidates stand on the issues? And I think that's what matters to voters the most.

KING: And if you talk to the Democrats, and I talked to David Axelrod today, he says, you know, this what is Republicans, if they can't say the unemployment rate is going up, if they can't say something about the economy, they want to use this as part of a narrative that he's different. He's not like you.

E.J. MONTINI, COLUMNIST, "ARIZONA REPUBLIC": I would say that's a losing strategy if that's what you're taking. I mean, ultimately it didn't work the last time. I can't imagine that it would work again this time. I don't know that you have an adequate means test for the president on whether you're Christian enough to be president of the United States.

I have a sense that if we look back in our history with all the ones we've had so far, we might have a little trouble with more than a few of them along those lines, some of whom were very good presidents.

It just strikes me as an odd argument to start to make at this stage.

KING: But Jeff, is it an odd argument if your focus is on President Obama perhaps in the more understandable argument if this isn't about President Obama. This is about, at the moment, a tug-of- war between Gingrich and Santorum to survive and then Governor Romney to say, well, the conservative base of the party seems to be moving.

So the rhetoric has changed dramatically in the last ten days of this race as all of a sudden Santorum is a threat. He wants to wake up the day after Super Tuesday with Gingrich gone. And so he is just going right and going really hard.

JEFF ZELENY, "NEW YORK TIMES": And this is one of the things that explains why Governor Romney is having a bit of a problem here in the last two weeks or so. Because it's -- the whole conversation is of his issues. Really ever since the whole conversation about contraception and things has started, and it was a CPAC conference he said he was severely conservative. Whenever he's not talking about the economy, he's sort of off his message.

So the campaign is desperately trying to get Mitt Romney back into that groove beginning with the debate on Wednesday and then a big economic speech on Friday. But he does not want to be talking about either. But we still have not had a full examination of his faith in his campaign. To me, I think if this race goes on with Santorum and Romney more. I can't imagine us not talking more about the Mormon faith. KING: You think -- you say he alluded to it a bit today. You know, earlier today in Michigan he alluded to somebody he said he knew first-hand questions of religious tolerance.

This also came up this morning. Franklin Graham was on "Morning Joe." He was asked about Romney and Mormon faith and do you consider him a Christian. Let's listen.



GRAHAM: He is a Mormon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But he said that he's part of the Judeo- Christian faith. Do you take him at his word?

GRAHAM: Well, most Christians would not recognize Mormonism as part of the Christian faith.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So he is not a Christian?

GRAHAM: I'm just saying most Christians would not recognize Mormonism. Now, of course they believe in Jesus Christ, but they have a lot of other things believe in, too, that we don't accept.


KING: How different is this conversation in Arizona, as opposed to South Carolina in the sense that, if you're here in the west and much more common, much more likely to run into Mormons?

HERROD: I think it is different, and I think people in Arizona, we have people who come together around shared values and issue positions. So whether somebody is LDS or evangelical Christian, or Protestant, or Jewish, I don't think that that matters as much here.

Again, I think the debates about issues, the debates have been incredibly important and that's what voters are looking for. Where do they each stand on the issues? That's what people want to know.

KING: Stand by. I want to talk about the debate in just a minute. I just need to move quickly to "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," coming up at the of the hour. And Erin's here now with a preview. Erin, what should we look forward to?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: All right. So John, I want down to the New York Stock Exchange today, and I don't know. It was just my lucky day. It crossed 13,000 for the first time, as you know, since spring of 2008. Pretty amazing, but what does it mean for this president?

Some of the numbers we have tonight are pretty incredible. Did you know people in America who make $75,000 or more -- I'm going to pull this number here -- 87 percent of them own stocks, whether it be in a 401(k) or an IRA. Pretty stunning statistics. We're going to talk about what it means politically for the president. Also talk about Iran and what's happening there. The former secretary of defense William Cohen will be our exclusive guest. All that top of the hour. Back to you.

Plus, John, a little bit of DSK on the top.

KING: Erin, looking forward to it. We'll see you just in a few minutes there. Busy show ahead, it sounds like.

We'll be back here in just a moment, and a new study finds drinking and movies has a dramatic influence on American teenagers.


KING: This time tomorrow night, the candidates will be getting ready for their big debate. It's been nearly a month since the four Republicans, the final four candidates met. Let's talk that over. Ed Montini from "The Arizona Republic." Jeff Zeleny is the political correspondent for "The New York Times." Cathi Herrod, conservative activist here.

Ed, I want to start with you. This is an interesting state when it comes to politics. You have immigration...

HERROD: You have been here before.

KING: You have one of your sheriffs now involved in this scandal. When these candidates get up here tomorrow night, the stakes are enormous. A very tight race in Michigan. A very tight race here. We don't really have a Republican front-runner right now. What's the most important issue when you talk to people in Arizona, what are they looking for?

MONTINI: Well, I'm not sure, but I think that -- I think that right now the real dilemma is how to separate, and how do we find the candidate that we think has the best chance to beat Barack Obama. I think that's how certainly the conservative voters in Arizona are looking at it.

They don't strike me as all that keen on Mitt Romney, but by the same token I think they're not sold that somebody like Santorum can actually beat Barack Obama. And so it's a strange thing. It's almost like that has put some of those who were here for immigration and some of these other issues and those concerns are pushing the issue- oriented concerns a little bit off the table.

I think they figure all of these guys are pretty much the same on the economic stuff. We're more inclined to go with them economically, and so which one of them can help us to win.

KING: And in this state, Jeff, our new poll tonight. Romney 36, Santorum 32, Gingrich 18, Ron Paul 6. So essentially, a two-man race. E.J. and I just talked about -- that's essentially the dynamic of the Republican race. Do we have a front-runner? Who's the most electable, and the answer is who has changed just about every other week.

ZELENY: Yes, it has. And it' really extraordinary that we've been talking about the fact that Mitt Romney is not the front-runner any more in the sense that he has planned so long for this moment. But you talk to the voters and that's -- it is the situation.

Over the next seven days, I don't think you can overstate this, how important they are for the Romney campaign. I mean, Arizona is actually more important, because it's a winner-take-all state, but Michigan is Mitt's boyhood home. If he does not turn it around, we're hearing this uprising in the party. So I think that voters are looking for signals in other places, and he has to bring this. There's so much riding on these candidates' shoulders, not the campaigns' shoulders.

KING: Got to watch this. Cathi, very quickly.

HERROD: Voters are looking for someone who can fight, who's scrappy, who can engage in a debate with the president, who can tie together a strong economy is built on strong families. That's what voters want to hear.

KING: We'll see tomorrow night. We'll check in with you all afterward to see what you think about this.

Let's check back in right now with Kate Bolduan with more of the latest news you need to know right now.

Hey, Kate.


Hello again, everyone.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced today that he'll need to undergo surgery to remove a lesion found in the same area where doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his body last year. Last month a Spanish newspaper reported his cancer had spread to his colon, spine and bones, and the Venezuelan president could only have months to live.

Also, here's your chance to own a piece -- a little bit of history. The lunch menu from the Titanic the same day the ship hit the iceberg. The "Telegraph" newspaper reports one of the passengers put the menu in her handbag that day. She, the bag, and the menu made it through the disaster. And it's been in her family ever since. When it's auctioned next month, the menu is expected to go for between $95,000 and $160,000.

And a new study suggests 10- to 14-year-olds who watch movies with scenes of alcohol consumption like possibly this scene from "Animal House" are more at risk for teen drinking, even compared to pre-teens whose parents drink or have alcohol in the home.

The study published on the Web site suggests parents limit their kids' exposure to both movies and drinking -- with drinking and alcohol-related marketing products like T-shirts and caps.

We threw that reference in there of "Animal House," John, just for you, John.

KING: I think that's pretty good advice compared to. I like the movie "Animal House," but I think you should be a certain age before you get to see it.

Kate, stay right here.


KING: Finally, the "Moment You Might Have Missed." Last night, Stephen Colbert returned to hosting duties after last week's production was abruptly halted due to, quote, "unforeseen circumstances." Colbert finally revealing the reason for the hiatus.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "COLBERT REPORT": I just want to address my recent absence from the national conversation. As the hub around which the republic turns, I can understand why the machinery of this great nation ground to a halt last week when you were denied this.

Evidently, having 11 children makes you tough as nails. Confidential to a lovely lady.


KING: Well, Kate, you should fill in next time he needs a brief hiatus.

BOLDUAN: No problem.

KING: Big debate here in Arizona tomorrow night. It's all yours. It's all yours. You don't want to miss it. We'll see you right back here tomorrow night for our show.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.