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Post-GOP Debate Analysis

Aired December 12, 2007 - 15:24   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Republican presidential candidates in Iowa wrapping up their final debate before the leadoff contest of 2008, and that's only two days from now.
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington with a special expanded edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Standing by, the best political team on television: John King, Candy Crowley, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger and more, as well as Mary Snow. She's been watching the debate with some undecided voters, who will bring us their reaction as well. And fresh from the debate, candidates Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. -- they're standing by to join us live as well, immediately emerging from this debate.

You're looking still at the live pictures of the candidates leaving the podium, now.

Let's go to Gloria Borger first, our senior political analyst.

Gloria, you watched all of this unfold. Give us your immediate reaction, what we learned from these Republican candidates.

GLORIA BORGER, SR POLITICAL ANALYST: Actually, Wolf, I don't think we learned a lot that's new about these Republican candidates. I think the debate gave each of them the opportunity to tell you what they've been saying on the campaign trail, to talk about their strengths. We didn't see a lot of interaction between these candidates because of the format.

We heard Huckabee, Governor Huckabee talk about the fact that he can be the uniter in the Republican party, and I think, as candidates argue, he wants to get himself a little bit above the fray.

John McCain -- national security; Fred Thompson, talking about cutting back spending on entitlement programs; Romney, running against Washington, and Giuliani, talking about how he can be a leader in a crisis. But again, Wolf, we've heard all of this before.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, Gloria, we're going to be getting back to you.

I want to go out to Iowa. Dana Bash was watching and listening.

Let's listen first, Dana, to John McCain, responding to a question about global warming. Watch this.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (AZ) GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that climate change is real, but let me put it to you this way: Suppose that climate change is not real, and all we do is adopt green technologies, which our economy and our technology is perfectly capable of, then all we've done is given our kids a cleaner world.

But suppose they are wrong. Suppose they are wrong and climate change is real and we've done nothing. What kind of a planet are we going to pass on to the next generation of Americans?

It's real, we've got to address it, we can do it with technology, with cap and trade, with capitalist and free enterprise motivation. And I'm confident that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren a cleaner, better world.

BLITZER: That's John McCain speaking out. Dana, McCain is not necessarily in the top tier in Iowa. He's doing much better in New Hampshire, and he's basing a lot of his future on what happens in New Hampshire. But give us the lay of the land right now, what's going on in Iowa, especially as we all watched this debate unfold.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're right, John McCain is, you know, barely here, in the state of Iowa. It was a unique visit for him to be here. You heard him talking about the issue of global warming. That is actually something we don't necessarily hear a lot about from Republican candidates, but across the board they pretty much agree with what John McCain said on that issue.

He also -- it's also a bit of evidence, Wolf, of how John McCain might be out of step with people in Iowa, and he knows that. He made a clear point of saying that subsidies for ethanol is something that he is against. That doesn't go over well with Iowa voters. He knows that because he's kind of playing elsewhere.

But look, this particular debate, this particular time is -- the focus is between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Everybody on the stage understood that. But it was quite interesting -- the format really didn't lend itself to the two of them going at it the way they have been, sort of from a distance on the stump, and now on the air waves.

Mitt Romney actually passed up a couple of chances, Wolf, to go after Mike Huckabee: on taxes, for example -- he was asked what the difference is between -- or, what's more important, a social conservative or a fiscal conservative. He could have gone after Mike Huckabee and said, Look, he raised taxes in Arkansas. He decided not to do that, perhaps because his campaign understands that, as much as they want to get at the issues, they also know full well from past experience of other candidates, that Iowans don't necessarily like these candidates being so aggressive, really sort of negative in their tone.

BLITZER: All right, we've got Dana stand by, because John King is out in Iowa as well, Candy Crowley is there. Candy, you were watching, you were listening to all of this unfold. Give us your immediate reaction of what you saw and heard.

CANDY CROWLEY, SR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I guess my immediate reaction, Wolf, had to do with the contrast between the Democratic conversation and the Republican conversation, when it comes to these issues. This was a Ronald Reagan bunch, at least in the top tier. It was about cutting taxes, it was about a stronger military. It was about leaving education largely to the states and have the federal government step back.

This is clearly a different conversation from what you hear in the Democrats. It made me sort of look at the general election and realize that people are going to have a real choice here because, in fact, at the top tier, they generally agreed on these major issues and it all had to do with a smaller federal government, a stronger military and less spending.

BLITZER: John King, what jumped out at you as you watched this debate over some 90 minutes?

JOHN KING, CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the number one policy dividing line among the candidates in Iowa right now and the number one issue among Iowa Republicans, according to our polling, is illegal immigration. And what jumped out at me is that that issue was taken off the table by the moderator right at the beginning of the debate. So that took the fireworks out, for the most part.

The most heated exchange at this debate was between Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney over taxes, when Mitt Romney said he wanted to focus on the middle class because he didn't worry about what the rich paid and Fred Thompson made a joke about he wants to not be able to worry like Mitt Romney. And then there was an exchange about who's the best actor on the stage.

The debate format took away the fireworks. So each candidate tried to do things that were important to them strategically.

Dana mentioned John McCain on ethanol subsidies and global warming. He's appealing to Independents, not to farmers here in Iowa.

Mike Huckabee tried to play it big by saying I want to be the president who unifies the entire country.

Why is he doing that?

Someone could say who's opposed to that?

Well, he's ahead right now and he knows his record is going to come under fierce attack over the final three weeks of the Iowa campaign, so he's trying to be big, trying to be a unifying force and trying to bring in new voters beyond his Evangelical base.

So absent fireworks, everyone tried to move along their own strategic goals -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And let me play that little clip for our viewers who may have missed it -- this exchange between Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, COURTESY IPTV/PBS)



THOMPSON: My goal is to get into the Mitt Romney situation, where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) try to get into your situation

THOMPSON: Well, that's (INAUDIBLE). You know, you're getting to be a pretty good actor, actually.


BLITZER: You know, Gloria Borger, she's with us still, as well. I saw a bit more aggressive tone -- a more aggressive nature coming from Fred Thompson right now. What happens for him in Iowa is going to be critical, because he's really resting a lot of his -- making a lot of his bets on Iowa right now and New Hampshire not necessarily in the mix for him.

BORGER: No, New Hampshire is not in the mix. And I agree with you, Wolf. I think that in this debate, he tried to sort of be a little bit more natural, tried to show the voters in Iowa who the real Fred Thompson is, the more relaxed Fred Thompson. And as I was saying earlier, he also made the issue of entitlement spending sort of key to everything he was saying today, saying you have to get -- become a fiscal conservative -- get control of the federal budget. You have to handle Social Security. You have to handle Medicare. And he also tried to portray himself, Wolf, as the truth teller among the Republicans. He said I'm going to tell the American people the truth in my first hundred days. And I think that's part of his appeal.

BLITZER: Is it appealing, Dana Bash, to Iowa Republicans -- a lot of them very conservative, many of them Evangelical Christians -- to see these candidates really get it on there, to really fight each other?

Or do they want to see a more positive tone coming from these candidates?

BASH: Well, look, when you ask Iowa voters, you know, one by one, what they want, they do say they want something more positive. And, as I said before, history shows that when candidates really go at it in a negative way, that they both end up kind of -- it becomes a mutually assured destruction, if you will.

So that, perhaps, is why the format of the debate was set from the beginning to focus on the substance, focus on their positions. You know, we heard from the campaigns before this, Wolf, that they were a little bit frustrated about the fact that they knew that this was their last chance to be on the stage together before the Iowa caucus votes. They really wanted more of a chance -- at least some of the campaigns tell us privately -- to mix it up. And the format simply didn't allow for that. You saw, at least toward the end, some of the candidates tried, some with humor, some not so much, to go at it a little bit. But it's unclear if they really were able to get across what they wanted to say about each other's records, the way they have been on the stump.

BLITZER: Stand by, Dana, and everybody else, for a moment.

The last Republican presidential debate before the first major presidential contest wrapped up, as you now know, only a few moments ago in Iowa. The candidates have had their say. Now it's, of course, time for the voters to have their say.

In our Political Ticker, we're gauging reaction to key moments with the help of some electronic meters. When lines go up on the meter, it means a positive reaction to something the candidates said. When the lines go down, it means a negative reaction.

Mary Snow is following the feedback with a select group of undecided Republican voters in Johnstown, Iowa.

Explain what you're doing, how many undecided voters are with you, Mary, and what the reaction was. Give us a little sense of this focus group, if you will, that watched these 90 minutes.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have 21 registered Republicans here in this room. And we'll pan out there and show you. They were sitting here watching the debate and each one was holding a meter. And as you just said, when they heard something that they liked, they turned the meter. And then you'll see that indicated by lines going up. When there was a negative reaction, you'll see that measured by lines going down.

And in this debate, we noticed there were two key moments that got strong responses.

Take a listen and watch that line when Mike Huckabee was talking about American values.

Here's what it sounded like.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our founding fathers had the idea that when we are elected, we're not elected as a part to be elevated up, but to truly remember who it is we work for. I think sometimes that's what happened in America -- we forget or job is to keep this country safe, first and foremost, and it's to try to encourage Americans to be their best at everything they do. And I can tell you, it's a long way from the little red house I grew up in to this stage.


BLITZER: Unfortunately, it looks like our satellite with Mary Snow has just gone down.

But Gloria Borger is still with us -- Gloria, that resulted in a very, very positive response, what Mike Huckabee -- the fact is, we were watching that meter throughout almost these 90 minutes and many of the things he said resonated very well with those 30 or so undecided Republicans who were in our focus group.

BORGER: That sort of encapsulates the appeal of Mike Huckabee -- the poor boy who made good, who's very grateful, who said I will never forget where I came from. People like that all over the country, not only in Iowa. And that is really his appeal, Wolf.

I mean, obviously, in the recent days, where we've been seeing a lot of stories about Mike Huckabee from when he was governor of Arkansas, criticizing his ethics, criticizing his tax raising and all the rest. But that kind of a statement is what really, clearly, touches Iowa voters. And that's why you saw this entire debate today, I believe, kind of taking the high road.

BLITZER: And it explains, in part, why Huckabee has done so well...


BLITZER: ...has surged so dramatically in Iowa and elsewhere.

We've reestablished contact with Mary.

There was reaction -- and we're going to be doing this throughout THE SITUATION ROOM -- Mary, reaction to another topic that came up in the debate.

Tell us about that.

SNOW: Yes, Wolf, these are one of the dials that everybody was holding here. One of the other moments that we noticed got a very strong reaction was when Rudy Giuliani talked about reducing debt by cutting government spending. We saw the lines certainly go up when he was speaking about that.

Now, let's talk to one of the registered Republicans here who's undecided, Debby Helf (ph).

Debby, has this debate helped you form a decision?

DEBBY HELF: I think it helps me narrow it down to three that are more experienced and specific about...

SNOW: those three...

I'm sorry.

And those three? HELF: About national security and the economy. And that would be McCain, Romney and Giuliani.

SNOW: We just mentioned that Rudy Giuliani had a strong response -- or you guys had a strong response when he was talked about cutting government spending.

Did that really resonate with you?

HELF: Yes, because I think that's a lot of our financial problems that affect our economy and our national security -- is the -- how many -- $9 trillion of debt, of over spending that we've accumulated. So that puts us at great risk, I think.

SNOW: Are you any closer now of choosing a candidate?

HELF: I'd say those are my top three. I do think, you know, Huckabee -- and, oh -- another one -- are passionate and articulate. And I know he's rising in the polls and...


HELF: But we have a lot of good presidential, strong candidates, I think. I think that's why the decision is so hard. But I could support any of those.

SNOW: All right.

Well, thank you very much for also do you the style (ph) testing.

And, Wolf, we're going to take a broader look at all 21 registered Republicans. When we come back, we'll tell you who they thought won this debate.

BLITZER: All right, that's going to come up in our 4:00 p.m. Eastern hour, right near the top of the hour. We'll stand by that for that -- this group of -- this focus group, as Mary said, 21 registered Republicans, undecided going into the debate. We're going to hear if they've made up their minds, if any of them have decided who they're going to vote for on January 3rd in Iowa.

We heard from the Republican candidates once again just now.

Coming up, I'll be speaking live with one of those presidential candidates, Ron Paul. We'll speak about what he felt were some of the important issues that came, were answered and unanswered in this debate. Ron Paul is standing by to join us live from the debate.

And later, we'll speak live with Mike Huckabee. He's certainly in the news right now -- arguably, the frontrunner in Iowa. Mike Huckabee coming up live in THE SITUATION ROOM, as well.

Also standing by, two Republican strategists -- Bill Bennett and J.C. Watts. They're standing by with the answer to this question -- who won this debate?

Stay with us.

Lots more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our expanded edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up later, we'll be speaking live with Mike Huckabee, arguably the frontrunner in Iowa right now. But right now we're speaking with another presidential candidate. The debate just wrapped up in Iowa.

And Ron Paul is joining us live from the scene.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

RON PAUL (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you. Nice to be with you.

BLITZER: Were you -- first of all, were you happy with what happened over these nearly 90 minutes of the debate?

PAUL: Well, I was satisfied. I wasn't super happy or disappointed. It was pretty routine. It was a little more subdued. But I had a fair amount of time and I got to make some points. And I was pleased that I got to bring up the subject of monetary policy, which, to me, is very important. It's being totally ignored and we're in the midst of a dollar crisis.

So I was very pleased that I was able to do that.

BLITZER: We were monitoring the debate, all hour-and-a-half or so, with a focus group of 21 undecided Republicans. And they had a little meter to show us if they liked what they were hearing, if they didn't like what they were hearing.

I'm going to put up on the screen and play this excerpt of what you want when you were talking about what you would do in your first year as commander-in-chief.

And watch -- watch this. If you can't see it, I'll explain to you what happened.


PAUL: The commander-in-chief could end the war. We could bring our troops home. That would be a major event. It would be very valuable. We could be diplomatically -- we could become diplomatically credible once again around the world. Right now, today, we're not. Even our allies resent what we do. We would -- we would have no more preemptive war. We would threaten nobody. We would not threaten Iran.


BLITZER: All right. On that, these 21 Republicans, you should know, Congressman, if you weren't watching the line go down, they didn't like what they were hearing right then. I suspect some Democrats might have liked very much what you were saying. But this is a consistent problem you've had had in this Republican contest.

PAUL: Well, you know, the whole thing is if this would have been Clinton's war, they would have gone in the other direction, because we ran against Clinton's interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia. So I would say that they're loyal to the party and loyal to the president.

I'm loyal to the constitution and nonintervention and to the founders. And it's just a bad policy and they have to realize that we lost last year's election over this war.

We don't need to be starting wars. And I would say the country is on my side. Seventy percent of the American people -- and a lot of Republicans -- agree with me on this. And that really -- your statement reflects the views of 21 people, but it really doesn't discourage me because I'm very, very confident of the correctness of my position.

BLITZER: And it's interesting, also, at another point when you were talking about lifting the embargo against Fidel Castro's Cuba, the line also went down.

Are you surprised by that?

PAUL: Not entirely. But, again, that's a narrow analysis. But all of those in there probably would be arguing for free trade. And their free trade is supporting NAFTA and CAFTA and the World Trade Organization and putting on sanctions. That's not free trade. We're out here in farm country and there's a lot of farming in this country. And what we need is free trade. We need to be selling farm products to Cuba. I mean we're way behind the curve. We do much better when we trade and talk with people. We achieve a lot more in peace than we do at war.

Sanctions are a form of war. And it's very threatening. And we do not achieve that -- it goes against the grain. It goes against what the founders strongly advised -- stay out of the entangling alliances, free trade, talk with people and travel.

BLITZER: The latest Mason-Dixon poll has you in Iowa at only 2 percent. In our national poll of the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, you're at 6 percent. Yet you're raising incredible sums of money, Congressman Paul. You told me the last time you think you might raise in this last quarter of the year -- these last three months -- maybe as much as $14 million, which is an enormous sum.

How do you explain that?

What's going on here?

PAUL: The message is being well received. The people in this country are disgusted. We have Republicans, Democrats, Independents, people who have been turned off and new people coming in. We almost have $12 million for this quarter, which was our goal. We have December 16th coming up, a special day. Those organizers claim it's going to be bigger than November 5th. We could have $5 million on that very day.

So we're going to be way ahead of the plan. This tells us...

BLITZER: What are you going to do all that money?

PAUL: Well, we're buying television and we're doing the campaign. We're probably under the radar screen. But believe me, we're going to get our vote out and we just may well surprise a lot of people, because we're not sitting on our hands. We're doing the things necessary to translate Internet support and the money we have into getting real votes.

BLITZER: and very quickly, if you don't get the nomination, what is the chance that you will run as an Independent, third party candidate?

PAUL: Pretty slim. I have no intention, no plans. The system is biased against third parties and Independent runs. It isn't a very democratic process. If you run as an Independent, you can't get into the debates. It's hard to get on ballots. So I'd like to see the promotion of democracy here in this country. We deserve a little bit of an improvement here.

BLITZER: So I don't hear you saying the word zero chance. You're saying pretty slim.

PAUL: It's a pretty slim chance for what?

BLITZER: To run as a third party candidate.

PAUL: Oh, yes, no...

BLITZER: Is there a zero chance or -- pretty slim is just a little bit higher than zero.

PAUL: Yes, I would say 99.999 percent. I mean I don't like saying absolutes. But I have no plans -- this is an honest statement -- I have no plans and no intention to do anything outside the Republican primary.

BLITZER: Ron Paul, I hear you.

Thanks very much, Congressman, for coming in.

PAUL: Thank you.

BLITZER: So which candidate did that group of undecided voters think did the best job, did the worst job?

They're all undecided Republicans.

Did anything the candidates said during this debate help them make up their minds?

Mary Snow is standing by. She's going to be back with more of their dial testing results.

And what did candidate Mike Huckabee think of his own performance and that of his rivals?

He's standing by live, as well. He'll join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM, fresh from this debate.

Stay with us.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Two members of the best political team on television are joining us now with their reaction to today's Republican presidential debate in Iowa. You saw it live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett and our CNN political analyst, J.C. Watts.

They're also going to be joining us in the Strategy Session in the next hour.

What did you think?



BENNETT: No, I'm sorry. I mean bring back YouTube, really, with all, you know, with all the issues. But, you know, television -- it's television and people should have television people doing it. And, you know, the New Year's resolution -- no more Wednesday afternoons in Iowa with the "Des Moines Register."

Some points were made that were interesting, but they never really engaged in a kind of a full way.

I thought Fred Thompson did pretty well. I thought it was interesting he talked about entitlements, which is a problem that has to be addressed. It's gotten very, very little attention. He also had a nice exchange with Romney. I thought Romney did well, too.

BLITZER: What did you think, J.C.?

J.C. WATTS (R), CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, 70 percent of the federal budget is entitlement and interest...


WATTS: ...that we pay and 30 percent we argument about how we're going to spend it on other things. But I think voters were looking at it through the prism that they wanted to hear the issues addressed. John McCain -- strength, defense, you know, cutting spending; Mike Huckabee -- the touchy feely positive; Fred Thompson -- entitlements, you know, other things; Rudy Giuliani -- all of the above.

I think in a debate like this, if it was boring to Bill, then I'm guessing Mike Huckabee probably did pretty well. Because if you're up 2 points to 22 points and the debate was boring...


WATTS:'re not going to lose anything.


BLITZER: And nobody seemed to make any major mistakes.

WATTS: Exactly.

BENNETT: Well, I think...

WATTS: so...

BENNETT: I think that's right.

WATTS: So that was good -- that was good for Mike Huckabee.

BENNETT: It is an interesting thing about Huckabee, what you called touchy feely. There's a kind of homey, aphoristic quality to him -- which is charming, as you saw in that chart you were showing with Mary Snow.

But how long can you play that out?

How long does that work?

I mean I expect a while longer. But as he becomes the frontrunner -- as he certainly is in Iowa -- and people start to push him a little harder on some things, then he has to get beyond that.

WATTS: I think that's...

BLITZER: He was governor of Arkansas for 10-and-a-half years.

BENNETT: Yes, he was.

BLITZER: So it worked in that state, where there are a lot of Democrats, as well.

WATTS: I don't -- I think it can -- Mike Huckabee can play that out as long as the campaign lasts because that's who he is. I think the question is, does he have the infrastructure, the dollars, the organization to kind of tell his story to the other 49 states?

This is Iowa, so now you've got to go to New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, so forth and so on.

So of you have the organization and the resources to (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Because money still talks in politics.

BENNETT: Right. And, remember, the job is first and foremost is commander-in-chief. And I know the emphasis in Iowa, ethanol, what are you going to do with the farmers?

But that is the main part of the job...


BENNETT: commander-in-chief. And we've yet to hear from a lot of these guys on that.

BLITZER: Bill Bennett, J.C. Watts, stand by...

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: you're coming back in less than an hour in the Strategy Session here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also coming up, we're standing by live to speak with Mike Huckabee. He's now, arguably, the frontrunner in Iowa. He'll be joining us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll get his reaction to what just happened.

And which candidate do voters think did the best or the worst in today's debate?

Did anything the candidates said help them win over a group of undecided Republican voters who were watching this with Mary Snow?

All that and a lot more coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check in quickly with another member of the best political team on television. That would be Jack Cafferty.

You watched this debate.

What did you think -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: They're going to have another one tomorrow, right?

BLITZER: A Democratic presidential debate tomorrow.

CAFFERTY: Yes. I think the first thing we have to do is get you or Anderson on a plane tonight to get out there and moderate this thing, because it was awful. I mean it was boring. At one point, this woman asked Alan Keyes -- what are you going to do to guarantee transparency in the White House?

That's like asking me what's the first thing I'm going to do when I get to Mars?

It's an interesting idea, but there is no chance that it's going to happen.

It was a yawn. I'm glad it's the last one. Tomorrow will be the last Democratic one and then we can get on with the business at hand, because this was -- it was hard to stay awake.

BLITZER: Jack, stand by.

We've got The Cafferty File and a lot more coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jack will be back shortly.

To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a dead heat right now in New Hampshire. Our brand new CNN poll shows Barack Obama has closed the gap with Hillary Clinton in the leadoff primary state. The Democratic race now more uncertain and more exciting than ever.

Plus, the Republican frontrunner in Iowa, Mike Huckabee -- is he feeling bruised after the GOP debate we just watched here on CNN?