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JOHN KING, USA

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; Border Violence; Is the Economy Getting Better?; What Women Want; U.S. Census Day; The Changing Face of America

Aired April 1, 2010 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Today is Census Day, which means the government expects you to fill out this form and drop it back in the mail by close of business today. It seems straightforward enough. Every 10 years, Washington takes a head count, so it can tell us how many of us live here nationally, state by state, county by county, and so on. Most of you know that already.

And more than half of you have filled out the form and sent it back. Those who haven't have different reasons. One is apathy, replying is required by law, yet the Census reported only a 67 percent response rate the last time around back in 2000. Others who ignore or throw out the form see a big brother government invading their privacy with too many questions, about whether you rent or own, or whether you split your time between a second residence or yes, they ask this, jail or prison, some here illegally or know people here illegally (INAUDIBLE) cooperating might mean deportation or harassment.

And still others as we will show you from the road in Michigan, worry their Arab heritage will count against them somehow in this post 9/11. It isn't just about having a good count, between 300 billion and 400 billion in federal government spending is allocated based on population and other data called from the Census. Money for highways and schools, for example, the count also determines which states gain and which states lose seats in Congress. And because the Census has that role in our politics, it is perhaps inevitable that politics has a role in our Census. In a country changing so fast in just about every way, this, like it or not, is a big deal.

Moving on to tomorrow's news tonight, there seems to be a lot of confusion at the Pentagon about how to enforce the rules on gays in the military. Even the Army secretary now clarifying some comments he made off-camera. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has new information tonight on how the military plans to tackle this very tricky issue -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well John, new details emerging at this hour tonight. The Pentagon has done some fast back pedaling after the Army secretary said there was a moratorium if any gay soldiers wanted to speak up about lifting the ban on "don't ask, don't tell", that they would be protected from action. That is not true.

The Pentagon issuing a statement to that fact and now saying it will hire an outside essentially third-party firm, a polling firm to go out and ask the troops face-to-face what they think about whether the "don't ask, don't tell" ban should be lifted if gay troops speak up, they will then not be prosecuted, because of course they will be speaking anonymously to this polling firm, not to their commanders. At least two top military officials, the head of the Army, the head of the Marine Corps now expressing their reservations about lifting the ban -- President Obama has a steep road ahead.

KING: Steep indeed, Barbara Starr -- Barbara thanks so much.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is ordering the National Guard to patrol the border with Mexico, saying it is necessary to ensure the safety of his state's citizens. It's the latest fallout from the killing of a rancher in neighboring Arizona. Authorities followed a set of footprints from the murder scene down to the Mexico border. CNN homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve is in touch with her sources here in Washington, in the southwest and in Mexico -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: John, despite those tracks leading to Mexico, the Cho Cheese (ph) County sheriff who was leading the investigation says there is no definitive information yet on the murderer's nationality or possible connection to the drug trade, but others like Governor Richardson are apparently making those links.

The New Mexico National Guard is still planning exactly how many guardsmen it will deploy and what they will do. Because of posse comitatus (ph) restrictions they will not be able to perform law enforcement functions. But they can do surveillance, for instance. The governors of Arizona and Texas would also like to see more National Guard on the border with the federal government picking up the tab and so would Senator John McCain, currently in the midst of a hard fought reelection campaign.

Some in Washington suggest politics is a factor here, and say this one murder, as horrific as it was, does not necessarily reflect a major spillover of Mexican violence into the U.S. There are no indications at this point that the federal government is going to further expand resources on the border, but a spokesman says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is outraged by the Arizona murder, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and prosecution -- John.

KING: Thank you, Jeanne.

A cautious tone from the Obama administration on the eve of a big economic report -- a lot of fingers are crossed at the White House tonight hoping that when the new unemployment report comes tomorrow morning the news will actually be good instead of merely less bad. The national jobless rate currently stands at 9.7 percent, and the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner told NBC it will be quote, "unacceptably high for a long period of time."

Most Americans seem to share that sense of treading water. In our new CNN polling just 21 percent of Americans describe economic conditions in the country as good; 78 percent say poor; seven months ago almost exactly the same; 21 percent good; 79 percent poor; a tough policy and political challenge for the White House, to say the least. Our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin shares what her sources are telling her -- hi, Jess.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. You know administration officials are actually excited. They believe they'll finally have some good economic news to trumpet tomorrow on job growth. But as you point out, they know they have to temper that excitement and be careful not to celebrate when unemployment is still so high. It's really a balancing act.

So you'll see the president at a battery plant in Charlotte that got stimulus dollars for green jobs. You'll see cabinet officials and the economic team out in force. Expect this to be their line, job growth is still the most negative aspect of the economy, but think how much it's improved since they took office. One top official says to me overall the economy is recovering more quickly than anyone thought possible just a year ago. That's their line -- John.

KING: Jessica, thank you. And as Jess noted, the president will offer his perspective on the economy and those new unemployment numbers when he travels to North Carolina tomorrow. Tonight he's in Boston, raising money for the Democratic Party. He stopped first, though, in Maine to plug the new health care reform law, in his words, is good for small business. He also worked in a swipe at Republicans and us in the news media for highlighting he says evidence the public remains skeptical of the changes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's been a week, folks. So before we find out if people like health care reform, we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place -- just a thought.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president there earlier today in Maine. And as we go behind the numbers tonight we start with these, 34 and 1,300; 34 as in 34 miles per gallon. That's the new fuel economy standard set today by the Obama administration, and new cars and light trucks are expected to meet it in 10 years, by 2016. That's about seven miles per gallon more than the current rules.

And here's where the 1,300 comes in. It will cost money to boost fuel economy to 34 miles per gallon and the administration projects on average it will add $1,300 to the cost of a new car or light truck. United Autoworkers Union endorsed the tougher standards, but added this caveat saying it is critical that the federal government continue incentives that encourage domestic production.

On Wall Street today a long rally was fueled by reports showing manufacturing is picking up while the pace of job losses is slowing. Last-minute profit-taking took some of the steam out of things, but the Dow industrial still managed to close at an 18-month high. The broader S&P 500 Index also closed at its highest point in 18 months. Let's take a stroll now over to the magic wall. We'll take a peek at what's still coming up ahead in the program tonight. When we take our "Pulse" tonight, we will show you what women want. A gender divide, a gender gap in the health care debate, and we'll also break down the president's recent praise of flextime.

In "Wall-to-Wall" tonight, make Census, the man who wants to count each and every one of you shows us the nuts and bolts of taking the Census. ''

And "One-on-One" with the Latino mayor of Los Angeles, we'll talk about America's changing face and the pain big cities are feeling because of this recession.

And in "Play-by-Play", yes it's April Fools, when we break down the tape we'll show you the president's unicorn and the president talking about the first idiot -- guess which one is an April Fools' joke?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In tonight's "Pulse" we explore the gender gap and our policy and political debates and take a look at how women and mothers maybe see things a bit differently than those of us who live and breathe Washington. Erin Kotecki Vest is a mother of two and political director of BlogHer, the largest woman's blogging network with 20 million visitors per month. Erin thanks for joining us.

I want to break down some of these numbers with you and show them to our viewers because it's quite stunning. If you look at our latest polling first we ask people who does a better job handling the economy? Men by 15 points favor Republicans; women by eight points favor Democrats. Let's move on to health care. Who does a better job handling health care? Men, 50 to 46 percent say the Republicans do; women by a 50 to 43 percent margin say the Democrats do. Why a gender gap on these two biggest issues in our debate right now, the state of the economy and who would do a better job fixing it and health care?

ERIN KOTECKI VEST, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, BLOGHER: I think it comes down to the breakdown of the parties. When you take a look at the Republican Party, we have got, what, 17 female senators in the Republican Party as opposed to the Democrats where we have the first speaker of the House and larger numbers there. And it really goes almost down the middle when it comes to anything in politics. You're looking at we've got a blogger today on Blogher.com, Tabitha Hale (ph), who's talking about women being the face of the Tea Party, yes and no, because we've also got bloggers like Monocrats.com (ph) who are talking about cheering Speaker Pelosi saying women are no longer a preexisting condition. It breaks down just like the rest of the country breaks down, John.

KING: Well when you talk about that breakdown and I read the posting and the links and some of the comments about women being the face of the Tea Party in some ways, and obviously there was also a lot of commentary praising the health care bill, from time to time this criticism of the administration, too. Characterize the debate in your sense, in your community versus what you hear in Washington, at least from what I read on all the sites, your debates seem to be pretty pointed and sometimes about sharp on the policy, but relatively polite and civil.

KOTECKI VEST: Well, we keep it relatively polite and civil for a reason. We want it that way, but it comes down to what happens at home and how it affects us at our kitchen tables, how it affects us at our children's schools and everywhere else. So you're going to see arguments about health care and right now we have got a lot of mothers talking about whether or not their children are going to be covered under this preexisting condition loophole.

They're extremely concerned about that. And then when it comes to the economy, a lot of people are talking about being out of work and how they can make money from home and still get their kids to and from work. The work flexibility forum that came up yesterday at the White House was a very big deal.

KING: Let me jump in on that point because there was a lot of commentary on BlogHer after the president said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: So let's be clear. Workplace flexibility isn't just a women's issue. It's an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses. It affects the strength of our economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Support the president or not, a lot of the commentary was that that was an important cultural statement.

KOTECKI VEST: It's a huge cultural statement because it takes it from being just a women's issue and all of those women are only talking about what happens at home to it being a family issue, to it being an American issue, to it being a huge policy shift that we like to see, a cultural shift, frankly.

KING: Erin Kotecki Vest, we appreciate your time tonight and we'll keep in touch in the days and weeks ahead. Thanks for joining us.

KOTECKI VEST: Thanks, John.

KING: Take care. Up next, I go "Wall-to-Wall" with the man who is spending billions of your tax dollars to find out how many people live under your roof and some more questions. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We told you at the top of the hour this is Census Day and by law we're all supposed to fill out this form and send it back to the government. The count is complicated, expensive and at times controversial. The man leading it is here now to go "Wall-to-Wall" Dr. Robert Groves. He's the director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Thank you for joining us on Census Day. Fifty-two percent response across the United States nationally so far, what is your biggest challenge at the moment?

ROBERT GROVES, DIRECTOR, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU: We have two more weeks to go and those of you who have a form sitting on your table or your desk haven't filled it in, you still have two weeks to mail that in. That is an important step for us. This is a big operation. Every one percentage point of people who return the form, we save the country $85 million, so that's our total focus right now.

KING: As you know, some people look at this form and see controversy. Some people say, for example, why does the government need to know whether I rent or own?

GROVES: Great question -- in fact all of these questions have some law underpinning them. The questions -- the questions we ask of everyone are name, age, sex, race, ethnicity and whether you live somewhere else. This questionnaire, by the way, is as close as in our lifetimes we've had since the 1790 Census form.

KING: And but why do you need to know that? And another controversy that jumps up is some people don't like the language. Some African-Americans, for example, don't like the word "negro" still being on a Census form. Some Native Americans prefer that term to American Indian. Who decides the language you use?

GROVES: These questions -- questions eight and nine that you talked about, ethnicity and race are questions that each decade change in one way or another based on a set of input given to the Census Bureau and also to the Office of Management and Budget. The racial question brings up controversy every decade. You could go back and CNN I'm sure had a story about race measurement in the 2000 Census. It's the nature of America to talk about this I think.

KING: There's a flip side to this. Some people say some of this is none of your business, none of the federal government's business. Other people want more. This is from QueertheCensus.org (ph). It is gay and lesbian Americans who say you know what, we want to be counted by our sexual preference. What's the reason the government doesn't do that?

GROVES: We've never done that. We haven't done it this year. We are doing one thing for that population that -- was a decision made a couple of months ago and that is for the first time if there are a same -- if there's a same-sex couple in a household, let's say person number one on your form is a woman, person number two is a woman, and the person number two marks as spouse of person number one -- for the first time we'll record that and have special tabs on that. That wasn't done in prior Censuses, so we haven't ever asked sexual orientation.

KING: Let's walk over to the magic wall because I want to look at a few more other things here. As we go over, one of the questions is participation and we looked at this. This is based on a new Pew (ph) survey that just came out. And if you look at this, younger people are much more reluctant. And why do we think that is, are they suspicious of government, I might ask I guess is there an app for that?

GROVES: Great question, that group we've been tracking too, and have a similar result. If you think about it, a large portion of that group, first of all, some of that group is living with their parents. They don't have to fill out the form, their parents will.

(CROSSTALK)

GROVES: The other -- the other part of that group is for the first time being asked to do a Census. Last decade their parents did the Census for them. Every decade that group has a challenge to step up to the plate.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Let's look at another one here. And here if you are Latino or African-American, you are more reluctant to fill it out. How do you get over that? And what's the problem?

GROVES: Yes, you have to look at these numbers too. They definitely will. There's another study that Pew (ph) just put out yesterday -- I guess these are old data -- that show about 91 percent of Hispanics likely to participate, so the numbers move a little.

KING: They're improving?

GROVES: They're improving.

KING: Another question is the politics. One of the things you do, a lot of this is deciding how much highway money communities get, how much school money they might get, other federal programs, but some of it is about politics. And these states are early projections that, of course, depends on your final count is. These states are projected to gain seats after the Census this year because of population shifts. These ones projected to lose seats especially from these states. How much political pressure do you face from states saying hey wait a minute, Mr. Director, we're not losing that many people?

GROVES: You know this is one of the things that I deliberately don't know about, so the Census Bureau is a nonpartisan agency. The purposes of the Census, the product of the Census is indeed used for political purposes, but my side of it, the counting, has to be completely nonpartisan, so I don't look at this. I don't listen to these sorts of broadcasts -- no offense taken.

KING: None taken. Let's walk back this way because one of the other questions is why does it cost so much? If you look back in time --

GROVES: Yes.

KING: -- back in 1900 it was about 16 cents a person; by 1950, up to about 60 cents a person; the last time in 2000, about $16 a person. This time it seems like a big jump, nearly $47 a person, more than $14 billion the federal government will spend to count these people. Why does it take so much money? GROVES: I don't like it, either. I'm here since July, the long- run cost of the Census over this decade is large and I'm committed to trying to do better in 2020 if I have any influence on that. I can tell you it's hard to count the U.S. population. Let me give you some numbers.

We are going to spend -- if everyone returned the form in the next two weeks, we would save $1.5 billion, so we're going to spend about $1 billion a month in May and June -- we're expecting to because people didn't return the forms.

(CROSSTALK)

GROVES: This would really be simple to fix. If you have a form sitting in your house that you haven't filled out, fill it out and that addresses some of the cost issues.

KING: Dr. Groves, thanks so much for your time.

GROVES: Great to be with you.

KING: And we just broke down the nuts and bolts of the Census, when we come back, we'll get into some of the politics, especially in an urban area with a huge challenge. We'll go "One-on-One" with the mayor of Los Angeles next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Census is a big challenge everywhere, but perhaps bigger in a place like Los Angeles. Not only is it America's second largest city, students in its school system speak 92 languages. Here to go "One-on-One" the Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mr. Mayor, thanks for joining us. Your city is running behind the national average right now. About 45 percent have responded to the Census. It's about 55 percent nationally. Why the dip there in L.A.?

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), LOS ANGELES: Well, as you said, we have one of the largest foreign-born populations in the United States of America. We are the epicenter, if you will, of the foreign- born here in this state, and very importantly, we have a lot of young people, a very young population, a lot of renters, a lot of the folks that historically are undercounted, but we're very aggressive about reaching out. And while we are at 45 percent, we're in the lead in terms of big cities that have comparable foreign-born populations.

KING: You have been trying to help the cause. You sent out a tweet today saying "It's National Census Day. Take 10 minutes to fill out your form. Your community is counting on you." There are some in the community though sending a different message. How would you respond to those who are saying things like you know before you count us, legalize us? Some in the Latino communities frustrated with the lack of progress on immigration reform here in Washington saying, you know what? We're going to hold out, we want some leverage here.

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, along with virtually every Hispanic civil rights organization, I've said that that kind of thinking is counterproductive. The fact of the matter is folks need to be counted. L.A. lost about $200 million in state and federal funds because we were one of the highest undercounted cities, the second highest undercount in the nation behind New York. That's the city of Los Angeles alone, a loss of $200 million. The county lost $1.5 billion. The school district lost hundreds of millions of dollars. That kind of thinking is frankly not going to provide the health care, the child care, the education, the services that are provided based on population and federal formulas.

KING: Are you worried, though, that that kind of thinking, as you describe it, may have at least a decent amount of public support because of -- we've talked about this before -- because of frustration that Washington has not moved more quickly on the immigration issue as you would like?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well that's why for six months on a weekly basis I've been in virtually every community. I've been on many TV and radio stations that speak many languages, not just Spanish and English to really get the message out. That's why I'm on your show today, to say that we all have to participate. Under our Constitution we have to count the population every 10 years, the Census form is now 10 short questions, takes 10 minutes to fill out and by law that information is confidential. It can't be used for any other purpose than to -- for the census.

KING: We'll know more, of course, once the count is completed, but one of the fascinating things if you look at the early projections is that for the first time in its history, California after a census is not likely to gain a congressional seat. There are even some who say California could lose a seat.

What does that tell you, Mr. Mayor, about not only the changes in California's population, but changes across the country?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, there are many states that are growing in the Sun Belt and other parts of the country. It says frankly that there are a lot of great places to live in the United States of America. We like to believe here in California that this is one of them. And certainly in Los Angeles, where we still have a very robust population and a very diverse one, we're very proud that this is the place where the world comes together and where dreams come true.

KING: Fourteen and a half percent unemployment in your city. That rate is higher among African-Americans and among Latinos. We'll get new national numbers out tomorrow. But give us your sense, sir, of the state of the economy -- the depth of the recession in your city right now.

VILLARAIGOSA: I can tell you that we're now at a 14.5 percent unemployment rate. As you said, that means there are a lot of people out of a job -- in fact, more people than any time since the depression.

KING: Is this president doing enough to help you? Is this president doing enough to help you? VILLARAIGOSA: Well, this president has finally, with the Congress, passed health care, which will address the deficit, and our debt. He's focused on the economy. I'll tell you -- this is a White House that has an open door to cities like Los Angeles.

But yes, we also need more help -- more federal help, more state help. What I've said is, we've got to partner with the federal government to bring jobs back to L.A.

KING: Slowly hearing somewhat more optimistic talk out of the administration. They believe that at least the economy will start producing jobs in the near term, and yet, your administration now wants to go back into contract negotiations with some 45,000 police officers, firefighters, librarians and other city workers -- essentially trying to renegotiate the terms of the contract, especially when it comes to pension benefits and the like.

Why do you need to do that, sir? And what does it say in terms of your confidence -- and I assume that your confidence is that any rebound is still down the road a bit for your city?

VILLARAIGOSA: All of the economists have said that the projections for revenues this year and next year will be down. And as a result, given the fact that revenues have been down two years running and that our deficits are up, we're going to have to make many, many sacrifices. So what I've said to our unions, rather than lay off employees in the numbers that are proposed, somewhere like 4,000 employees, what I've said is, why don't we all take a cut. I took a 16 percent cut over the last two years. I'm asking employees to take a 10 percent to 15 percent cut, and we would be able to avoid the magnitude of layoffs that we're looking at.

My hope is, as well, is that the federal government will do what they did for the states. Cities need support as well, and they gave money to the states to allow them not to lay off. They also did that for school districts. We hope that there will be support for that kind of jobs bill, if you will, for cities and counties as well.

KING: Mr. Mayor, we appreciate your time and we wish you the best to the days and months ahead. Take care, sir.

VILLARAIGOSA: It's always great talking to you, John.

KING: Thank you.

And up next, the most important person you don't know when it comes to the census, walking and talking the talk in English and in Arabic.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Today, our most important person you don't know is your friendly local census taker, people like Ahmad Nassar. He's representative of all the census workers reaching out to people of their home towns. In Nassar's case, it's Dearborn Heights, Michigan, part of the area that's home to the largest Arab-American community in the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AHMAD NASSAR, CENSUS WORKER: I'm going to speak in English and then I say that in Arabic, you know, for the second time. So, we'll address both -- actually that we have in our community, both languages.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Not only can Nassar speak the language, he can relate to his neighbor's experience. He left Lebanon some 20 years ago. In 2000, he did census outreach for the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. This time around, he's working with the government.

And in his first census since 9/11, this first census since 9/11, many Arab-Americans are especially leery of the government. Ahmad Nassar is busy convincing people that cooperating will actually help their community, not hurt.

Our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin joins us. And, Jess, I just want to show us -- as they say, here's one of the educational posters they're showing out there in Dearborn Heights, with the information in Arabic for the community, trying to get them to put any suspicions aside and cooperate. It is Census Day. Have you sent back your form?

YELLIN: I haven't gotten mime. I must be doing something wrong. I swear. I have to find out what.

KING: I got an extra one at my house, but I can't give it to you because they'll count you under me and that probably raise my taxes.

YELLIN: We'll figure it out. I got to get to the bottom of it.

KING: Now, "revolving door" is a term we hear often here in Washington and it's very different than what you see at the Mall. I understand you have a little news for us tonight.

YELLIN: Yes, revolving door, it talks about people going from government into lobbying. We're talking about Barney Frank. And this is one of these stories I just love reporting it. Barney Frank, he runs the financial services committee, as you know. And they've been working on Wall Street reform.

A guy who worked on his staff named Peter Roberson is a guy who worked on derivatives. He helped write that legislation that would regulate the riskiest parts of Wall Street that help economy. OK. Right after the bill passed the House, this guy went to work for a company that does what?

KING: Billionaires.

YELLIN: Makes billions of dollars on derivatives. Exactly.

KING: There's the revolving door. YELLIN: Revolving door.

So, Barney Frank was so outraged by this that he said the existing rule that says that guy cannot talk to his former colleagues on the committee for a year is not enough. And he released a statement to the media saying this -- check this out, I've never seen anything like this, quote - "When Mr. Roberson was hired, it never occurred to me that he would jump so quickly from the committee staff to an industry that was being affected by the committee's legislation. I'm therefore instructing the staff of the financial services committee" -- get this -- "to have no contact whatsoever with Mr. Roberson on any matters involving financial regulation for as long as I am in charge of the committee staff."

Message? Don't cross Barney Frank.

KING: Now, the wrath of Barney can be pretty interesting.

YELLIN: It's pretty remarkable.

KING: That's a tough statement. Jess, thanks very much.

And next in "The Clash," who's better at handling the economy and fighting terrorism, Democrats or Republicans? What the latest snapshot of what Americans are thinking and a conversation of how it might play in this year's elections.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: In this corner and in this corner.

KING: On big issues like the economy, our latest snapshot shows a significant shift in what the voters are thinking.

Here for "The Clash" tonight, Democratic strategist, Cornell Belcher. He's president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. And Republican strategist Kevin Madden -- he's executive vice president of the strategic communication firm Jim Dyke and Associates -- Welcome.

I want to put some numbers for our viewers. It's seven months to election. So, there's time for these numbers to change, but if they start to solidify, troubling for the Democrats.

Look at this -- which party will do a better job handling the economy? Now, a 48 to 45, a narrow Republican edge -- significant, though, because back in August, it was 52 percent for the Democrats, 39 percent.

So, a nine-point gain, Cornel, for the Republicans over the past several months. If you're the president of the United States going to North Carolina for a big economic event tomorrow, you have to find a way to change that trend.

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And that's why he's out there doing it, quite frankly. He goes -- I mean, I'm not going to spin it. That's a bad trend line for the Democrats, and it's a trend line that we're going to have to turn around.

And that's why you see the most clutch guy in the game right now out there, Maine, North Carolina, hitting the big states to turn those numbers around. And, look, those are going to stay low until Americans start feeling that the economy is turning around. Right now, clearly, Americans don't feel that. They have to feel it before the election.

KING: That's the Democrat/Republican breakdown. Let's just put up independents, because independents are a key bloc you're trying to get. How do independents view the economy? Again, look, Republicans now 51 percent to 36 percent. Back seven months ago, it was the Republicans had an edge, but it was much smaller.

Kevin Madden, that is the money if you're looking for the middle of the electorate, that number right there.

KEVIN MADDEN, EXEC. V.P., JIM DYKE & ASSOCIATES: Absolutely. And that's what's really great for us is that independents right now, the anxiety that's really driving them to our party is spending. American households across the country have reacted to these economic times very conservatively and they look at Washington as out of touch, because Washington has reacted liberally. They're spending a lot more a lot of money. They're growing the size of government and that is just at odds with how they live in their own households.

So -- and where the independents are are where a lot of these congressional races are going to be battled. You know, you look at the suburbs of Philadelphia, the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, the suburbs of Denver, that's where we're going to pick up seats.

KING: You talk about those numbers. It's encouraging for the Republicans.

It's been a tough week for Republicans in some other regards about spending. Here's a little fundraising letter that went out, I have in my hands here, to Republicans. It has a number at the bottom. You see it, dial that 1-800 number. Now, that should have been the 202. That's the Republican Party headquarters.

When you dial the 1-800 version of this number, what you get is a phone sex line offering. And for $2.99, live one-on-one talk with a -- I'll just say a girl, who will talk about anything you want.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: On the heels of spending money at a risque nightclub out in Los Angeles, this is -- you know, this is not affecting the price of bread or going to get anybody a job, but it's pretty embarrassing for the party.

MADDEN: It is. And, you know, the funny thing is, I remember when we used to send this out on campaigns. We used to make sure that there is an intern, somebody was tasked with dialing through all the numbers to make sure that that sort of thing didn't happen. So, you have to be careful.

It becomes a distraction -- this, along with other things, can ladder up and then just causing a news cycle to spin out of control and we don't get our message across. But it's really much more of a Washington, D.C. thing.

KING: It's an inside Washington thing.

BELCHER: It becomes a problem, not a Washington, D.C. thing when it -- when you get guys like Perkins and Rove talking about sort of how, you know --

KING: Conservatives saying don't send money.

BELCHER: Don't send money, and it becomes a real problem when the RNC cannot effectively communicate and help Republicans in this election, because, let's say, they can't raise money or they're spending money at such an incredible pace that they lose their competitive edge.

KING: All right. Stay put. Stay put. Hold that talk. We need to save some time. Stay right here. The April Fools' version of "Play by Play." Unicorns in advertising?

And President Obama saying it's really great that somebody in Maine gave him the big thumbs down. Find out what's real and what's a joke. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: Here comes the "Play by Play."

KING: And we're back for the "Play by Play."

Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher and Republican strategist Kevin Madden are still with us.

The president today was up in Portland, Maine. His mission was to sell the health care bill, talk a little bit about jobs. But the president also made a little bit of fun of himself and some of the criticism he encounters.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: You're free to call your president an idiot, you know? No, that's a wonderful thing. You know, as I was driving by, people were waving, you know, everybody was clapping and then one guy's like, "Eh." He saw me through the window, too, going, "Eh."

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I thought, that's a great thing about the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Let's stop -- let's stop the tape there. Is that a good thing for the president to do? Have a little fun with that, make fun of himself?

BELCHER: You know, absolutely. It's sort of -- that's why Americans love the guy so much in the first place is that connection, he's a guy that doesn't take himself so seriously, who'll poke fun at himself. He's a real guy. And you know what? I take likability when a candidate is liked, I'll take that all day long.

MADDEN: Now, it's true. I mean, it does always and he tries to enhance his very positive attributes of likability. But I think, what the rest of the speech I saw up there, he seemed to deride and poke fun at those who disagreed with him. There's a lot of Americans who disagreed with him on the issue of health care. So, I wonder if that doesn't kind of have a little bit of a backlash.

BELCHER: Well, he derided at people who were saying that the world was going to end when he signed health care. And rightfully so, because guess what? It's a beautiful day in Washington, D.C.

MADDEN: But he tends to assign these false motives to a lot of people who disagree with him.

BELCHER: Armageddon? That's not a false --

MADDEN: You know what I mean.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Let's talk a bit about imagery. One quick footnote -- I remember, at the height of the Iraq war protest, we used to always say to President Bush, they don't like out there. And tonight, I drive by everybody and tell me I'm number one.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: But let's watch the president here for a little test of presidential imagery here.

Out comes the jacket.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Thank you.

(CHANTING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Trying to relax. And you know what comes next. There he goes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Thank you. (CHANTING)

KING: He's let them roll them up a little bit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: All right. Let's stop the tape there. The president, he's been doing this a lot of his events. He takes off the jackets, he rolls up his sleeves. I was joking if he had cuff links, he could throw them up like guitar picks.

What is the image?

BELCHER: Game on. I mean, that's the Barack Obama that Republicans have to be afraid of, because when that guy is communicating, when that guy has his game on, he's Jordan, you know, 92. This is Jordan wearing the 23, not the 45. He's clutch, he communicates, he connects.

And right now, when you look at those poll numbers, you know, I like him on the road, I like him in battleground states because I think you guys (INAUDIBLE), I like our chances.

MADDEN: You stole my line. I think he tries to get, you know, very comfortable with the surroundings. And it's one of these things where he walks in as a president, he takes off the jackets, rolls up his sleeves, I'm just like you.

You know, my boss did it this week out in Iowa. He was wearing jeans in a button down. People are like, Mitt Romney with jeans and a button down in Iowa.

KING: I could find that tape.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Part of this also is to convince the base, I'm feeling good, you need to feel good.

MADDEN: Right.

KING: Because he needs that intensity.

BELCHER: Well, he should be feeling good. I mean, look, he did something that no president has done. He passed health care with the help of Nancy, Reid and -- I mean, Reid and Pelosi. He passed health care. That's a big thing. He said he was going to do it, and he did it.

KING: Now, watch this now. It is April Fools' Day. We told viewers we had one April Fools joke for you. Here it is. This is a Republican Web ad. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Global warming has been solved by replacing cars with no-emission unicorns, powered by renewable energy of rainbows. Our leader, Barack Obama, has changed the world. He is truly the greatest president ever -- April Fools!

Get real Obamacare is just a latest in a long list of broken promises by the liberals in Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's stop it here. Let's stop it here.

This is a little fun on the Web and they don't put any money of this on television. It's mainly so people trolling around, looking for political stuff can have a good laugh. Any risk is that? Or we allowed to have a good laugh?

MADDEN: No. And what's great about it is it's a negative ad, but you don't get a negative feeling from it because it uses kind of comedy and it uses flowery imagery to make a negative point. And the other great thing about it is that they're getting free airtime on it right now. Everybody is playing it and everybody is watching it. So, they never have to buy any -- they didn't have to buy any time for it.

BELCHER: Well, they still had to pay for it to be made. And given all the luxuries --

MADDEN: No, there's a guy in the RNC right now whose job is to be that.

(CROSSTALK)

BELCHER: And they're making it rain in strip clubs. I'm surprised they had money to make that ad.

KING: See, I know we couldn't have --

MADDEN: I knew he would bring that.

KING: It's time to squeeze in this last photo here. It's right here. We're going to squeeze this in. This is Scott Brown and his wife, Gail Huff -- Senator Scott Brown.

That's a picture of Scott Brown years ago when he was in college. He posed for "Cosmopolitan." He was an underwear model to raise money to pay for school. He went to a comedy show that and a prop (ph) there that says "You're a good man Scott Brown." Clearly having a little fun at his own expense.

I assume we think this is healthy as well?

MADDEN: Well, I don't know. Maybe a little bit of a social conservative problem with holding that up. But, you know --

KING: How many of those are there in Massachusetts?

MADDEN: That's true. That's very true.

BELCHER: I thought it was an RNC fundraising ad.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: (INAUDIBLE) very good. All right. Cornell and Kevin, thanks very much for coming in.

Next, we'll see if "Pete on the Street" can top this comedy. Our offbeat reporter looking for some common sense on the census.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's head out to New York and check in with Campbell Brown to see what's coming at the top of the hour.

Hi, Campbell.

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, there, John.

Well, we are following this very cloak and dagger story of that Iranian nuclear scientist who defected to the United States. Reza Aslan has been following this and he's going to be here tonight. We'll talk to him a little bit about how the CIA may have pulled this off, what kind of information the U.S. may be getting from him. Also, the Vatican ripping the media for attacking the Pope over the sex abuse scandal, lashing out very specifically at the "New York Times." We're going to have the latest on that as well coming up at the top of the hour -- John.

KING: We'll see you in a few minutes. Thanks, Campbell.

You know, Conan O'Brien tweeted today, "I'm confuse by the new census form. There's no box for sickly whites."

Here to help us sort all the census confusion, somebody who, if you listened to him in recent nights, says he might also that same box. Our offbeat reporter, Pete Dominick.

Hey, Pete.

PETE DOMINICK, JOHN KING, USA'S OFFBEAT REPORTER: I could use some color. I'm not going to lie. There's a lot of things I could use, John, and there's a lot of things people are concerned about apparently with the census. But not according to our polls at CNN, right? And the people out in the street, they're getting it right. They're not all following the plan, though. We'll see.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(MUSIC)

DOMINICK: I'm counting people. And in case they didn't fill out the census, I'm just going to count. One, two, three, four, five -- baby. Does the baby count? Did you do yours?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not yet. They haven't knocked on my door yet.

DOMINICK: No, you got to fill out the form. And how many people are in your household?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Four. My mother.

DOMINICK: Is this your mom? Hi, mom. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I filled out and haven't seen it.

DOMINICK: Why would you fill it out and yet wait to send it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't have stamps.

DOMINICK: You don't need a stamp.

Did you fill out your census? Which one did you check?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Black.

DOMINICK: You checked black.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Black and proud.

DOMINICK: Black and proud is not on the census.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's who I am. How you doin'?

DOMINICK: I'm not that proud to be honest with you.

Did you fill out your U.S. census yet?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, but I'd love to.

DOMINICK: You're not an American?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I'm an Australian.

DOMINICK: Please do not fill out a census.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. OK.

DOMINICK: Yes. We don't want to count you.

Have you filled out your U.S. census? Have you been picking up a lot of census forms, miss?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I have.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I actually haven't received mine in the mail yet, and I'm going to call the bureau.

DOMINICK: What do you check for race?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I always have to check other.

DOMINICK: What am I?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know what are you?

DOMINICK: I don't know. I'm bald and lonely.

Now, I don't even know what to check for the census.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Yankees will crush the Red Sox all season long.

DOMINICK: Yes, I think that question is on the census, too. Yes! Go Yankees!

Sorry, John, what are you going to do?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOMINICK: I had to. I had to. If there was a question on the census, John, with whether you're a Red Sox or Yankees fan, which one would win in America?

KING: They call it Red Sox nation for a reason. That was a gratuitous thump there. Wow! Ouch, ouch, ouch!

My favorite question, Pete, it says, do you have -- is there any time you live anywhere else? And it says, check if you have a second residence, and it also say, if maybe you spend time in jail or prison.

DOMINICK: Yes, that's always a weird one to have to check. Generally, my wife allows me to sleep at home. So I don't have to be too concerned with that. But they don't have a question, how often do you sleep on the couch?

KING: I will -- I might ask you that question tomorrow. Pete Dominick for us, "Pete on the Street." Thanks.

And that's all for us tonight. Thanks for spending some time with us.

"CAMPBELL BROWN" starts right now.