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JOHN KING, USA

Republican Debate; A Texas Republican; Fault Lines

Aired June 14, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Tonight a daring CNN trip to Syria to show you the mounting humanitarian crisis caused by the Assad's regime brutal crackdown.

First though the fallout from our big Republican presidential debate last night and new fault lines in the major policy clashes that debate exposed. One is between the Republicans and the Democratic incumbent President Obama. He raised the stakes today with a warning that Republicans risk fiscal Armageddon if they don't agree soon to raise the government's debt ceiling meaning the government's ability to borrow more money.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The full faith and credit of the United States is the underpinning not only of our way of life. It's also the underpinning of the global financial system and we could actually have a reprise of a financial crisis if we play this too close to the line.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: House Speaker John Boehner put the second dividing line front and center today, warning in a letter to the White House that in his view authority for the military operations in Libya expires on Sunday unless the administration wins open support from the Congress. The Republican speaker drawing a contrast with the Democratic administration, but the debate over whether the United States belongs in Libya is also a source of disagreement among the Republicans who want to be your next president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What possible vital American interest could we have to empower al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya? The president was absolutely wrong in his decision --

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The evening after take on the first major event of the 2012 presidential cycle can be summed up this way. The former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, well he has reason to smile after escaping with only a few minor scrapes as his rivals decided not to launch aggressive attacks on the candidate who is the big frontrunner in the first in the nation primary state.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Job one is making America the number one job creator in the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, she is being widely credited tonight with making the best first impression among the newcomers to the GOP presidential stage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BACHMANN: And I want to make a promise to everyone watching tonight, as president of the United States, I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare. It is a promise. Take it to the bank, cash the check. I'll make sure that that happens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's assess the policy lessons of the first big debate and its political impact on the field going forward. The former Republican Congresswoman Susan Molinari is here tonight, as is our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, and in Atlanta CNN contributor of RedState.com editor-in-chief Erick Erickson.

Let's start with Governor Romney. I think everyone is in agreement. We know he's ahead in the polls in New Hampshire coming in. He was not roughed up all that badly. And listen to him, Erick Erickson, on the campaign trail today. He knows he has a big lead in New Hampshire, but is this perhaps, perhaps it is humor, but is it overconfident humor?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Challenging times. I will do my best to make them a lot better.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: Thank you. Good to see you again.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: I will probably be back in four years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well that will be great. That will be great. Glad to have you.

ROMNEY: This time will be a larger group and probably have Secret Service.

(LAUGHTER) (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You know it's good to see, you know a lot of people saying Mitt Romney doesn't have a sense of humor. That's kind of funny. But does he have to be careful?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I think he does have to be careful. He is polling right now where Rudy Giuliani was polling in 2007. All that said, I think Rudy Giuliani had different flaws in 2007 than Romney doesn't. I would be pretty confident if I were Romney right now.

The history of the Republican Party is to typically go with the guy who is perceived to be the heir apparent of the last campaign cycle, that's clearly Mitt Romney right now and history is in his favor. The polling is in his favor. He's got a long way to go, but there is no clear anti-Romney candidate right now to take him out. Pawlenty was given the chance last night by you, John, and he punted.

KING: Let's talk about that chance because a lot of Republicans say let's pick a governor. Let's pick someone who's been a chief executive. That is the track record for president, but I know we have a senator now, Barack Obama, but not since 1960 did that happen. So a lot of Republicans let's say let's pick a governor.

If it's not Romney, maybe it would be Governor Tim Pawlenty. You mentioned that exchange last night. Governor Pawlenty had said on a Sunday show on FOX News Sunday Obamneycare, saying the Massachusetts plan under Mitt Romney was pretty much the same as the national plan that most conservatives despise passed by the president, so last night it went this way.

We don't have the sound for you here. What happened here he said would -- why would he choose those words I asked him in the comfort of a Sunday show studio when your rival is standing right there, I gave him the chance. Eventually, eventually Governor Pawlenty did use the words Obamneycare, but he wasn't -- he just wouldn't do it. Why?

SUSAN MOLINARI, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I guess he didn't want to take on the governor. This was going to be Governor Romney. This was going to be their opportunity to all go after President Obama. But I think he really made a tactical mistake.

I think when we look at the comments and sort of the overall misgivings about Governor Pawlenty. Does he sort of have the toughness to lead? Can he take on and go toe to toe with Barack Obama? Well yesterday his inability or his unwillingness to take on the frontrunner I think showed, sort of played into the caricature that we all have had in mind about Governor Pawlenty, and I think there's a danger here, you know can he survive this. I don't know because what happens in --

KING: This early --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: You asked that question this early --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: I was trying to get him to answer the question --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: This early --

MOLINARI: What happens if in the next debate a Huntsman or a Giuliani or a Perry or somebody else takes a shot and lands a hit on Governor Romney.

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI: Which they will and I think that further exacerbates --

(CROSSTALK)

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It just makes Pawlenty look inexperienced, which he is (INAUDIBLE) weak, and indecisive --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: If you're going to take a hit at somebody you've got to --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: There's a long way to go, Erick. Without a doubt, there's a long way to go. But you track the conservative movement pretty closely. For those who are looking at Romney and saying do we want to do this and looking around at the alternatives, what was their reaction?

ERICKSON: Oh, the common reaction last night was the big winner is Rick Perry. There's clearly an opening here for someone else. Pawlenty has time to overcome it. Frankly I think had the moment not come at the beginning of the debate, it wouldn't have overclouded the rest of his remarks, some of which were very good, but because it did, it may be unfair, but that's the way it is. Rick Perry has a real opening right now and my e-mail is full of people today saying when is he getting in.

BORGER: But you know I think a decision was made that when you start attacking the frontrunner, people can kind of get mad at you for going on the attack. And if this is the way you're introducing yourself --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

BORGER: -- to the Republican voters, which it was for Tim Pawlenty, then why do it by being on the attack --

KING: Let's move --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Let's move onto another --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But he chose to do that on a Sunday show --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: Why do it on Sunday --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well I agree totally --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: That was my question. I was not trying to be a jerk to the governor. I was trying to say if you do it on Sunday in the comfort of a studio, why won't you do it with the guy standing right there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Exactly.

KING: If you want the nuclear football, you want to be president of the United States you should be able to turn to the guy five feet away and say what you said in the studio. That was my take. I wasn't trying to pick on the governor.

Let's look at another candidate. Newt Gingrich's senior staff essentially fired the candidate the days before this debate, so he had a lot to prove. One of the criticisms, Erick, have been that on another Sunday show that he had used the term radical social engineering or radical right wing engineering. He said why should we do that to describe the Ryan Medicare plan. So I wanted to ask the speaker last night you know about that. Listen to how he redefined that debate last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you better slow down. Remember we all got mad at Obama because he ran over us when we said don't do it. Well, the Republicans ought to follow the same ground rule. If you can't convince the American people it is a good idea, maybe it is not a good idea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I get what the speaker is saying there, Congresswoman. I get exactly what he is saying strategically and tactfully as a presidential candidate. But when you're the House Republicans and you know you're negotiating with the Democratic White House, does that pull the rug out from under them?

MOLINARI: Yes. Next question. I mean clearly it does. Clearly it does. What you're doing you're taking away the negotiating, giving the Democrats their talking points as they sit down to negotiate with Paul Ryan and John --

BORGER: And who are Republicans running over, themselves? I mean this is their plan, almost unanimously approved, right, so who would they be running over?

KING: But he's a good debater. Erick, he's a good debater. He forced the idea's debate. He challenged me back when I had numbers maybe just not right. He was -- he's very good in that give and take. Did he do what he needed to do last night to get people to say all right, his staff didn't like him, they ran away, let's give him a chance.

ERICKSON: No, I mean he's a great debater. We all know this, but it's the same criticism Republicans threw at Barack Obama. He gives a good speech. He gives a good debate, but he's a bad manager. This far what we know about Newt Gingrich is the same thing.

Doing a great debate performance and by the way, he's had a two week sail around the Mediterranean to clear his mind and come up with what he wanted to say. It's not something that translates into being able to staff a campaign. He's always been a bad manager. I would frankly be interested in the congresswoman's take. She was there with him for awhile.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI: (INAUDIBLE) so much time --

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI: To what people perceive of Gingrich's weakness, (INAUDIBLE) lack of discipline. The people who quit as you well know, were not just paid political consultants, these are people who have been in Newt world for a very long time --

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI: So for them to walk away it's a big, big deal.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: And to wind up in --

KING: And so we have --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: We're going to get to Perry world in a little bit, but we had these dial testing groups going on, Republican voters, independent voters watching the debate. I don't like to make too much of these. They do track audience sentiment as the debate goes on, what gets people excited, what turns them off. You cannot judge who the best candidate is because of this, but I want to play one snippet of something that Herman Cain, the businessman from Georgia, a guy who surprised all of us, going from zero to 10 percent in the national polls, listen to this exchange and watch the dial group.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do not believe in Sharia law in American courts. I believe in American laws in American courts, period. They have been instances --

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CAIN: There have been instances in New Jersey. There was an instance in Oklahoma where Muslim did try to influence court decisions with Sharia law. I was simply saying very emphatically American laws in American courts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That -- the crowd certainly liked it in that room, Erick. Does that have anything to do with being president of the United States and how did Mr. Cain acquit himself last night?

ERICKSON: You know I actually think Newt Gingrich gave a better answer than Herman Cain. A full disclosure, I took over Herman's radio show in Atlanta, and the folks in Atlanta love him, but there were a lot of phone calls even from people who are die-hard Herman fans kind of scratching their head like, kind of like Pawlenty knew Obamneycare was going to come up.

He's now had a couple of bites of this Apple and I -- he's very defensive. Newt Gingrich gave a better response for him on this. It is not going to hurt him in the Republican primary. Heck, the state of Oklahoma passed a statewide referendum on Sharia law. It doesn't hurt Republicans, but it is kind of an off topic issue --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

ERICKSON: -- when jobs are out there.

KING: By the way, you say jobs. Hold on one second everybody. I want to try to get one more in here. I want you to listen -- here's a little bit of a (INAUDIBLE) several Republican candidates making their case against the Democratic incumbent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: This president has failed, and he's failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy going.

TIM PAWLENTY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president is a declinist. He views America as one of equals around the world. NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Obama administration is anti-jobs, anti-business, anti-American energy, destructive force.

KING: You're all here saying the president of the United States is making the economy worse. Has he done one thing, had he done one thing right when it comes to the economy in this country?

REP. RON PAUL, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well that's a tough question.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: No, no, I can't think of anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let me go quickly to each of you. Erick, you're not in the room. You go first. One of the test for Republican voters I assume is who up there on the debate stage do I see as the guy I want in the fight next October against the Democratic incumbent, in terms of making the case against the president, what did you see?

ERICKSON: You know, I think Mitt Romney probably had the best answer. I've never been a big fan of his, but I think he won the debate not just by default but on these answers on the economy. He was very paternalistic towards Tim Pawlenty's plan as well, which I thought was an interesting contrast. I think he came out of it very well.

KING: Did any of them make what I like in this race a lot to George H. W. Bush in 1992 trying to run for re-election in a very tough economy, Bill Clinton, he had a lot of help from Ross Perot, but Bill Clinton was able to convince those voters, the key voters he needed in the middle I get it. I'm with you on the economy.

BORGER: Well there weren't a lot of specifics, and you pressed, and then you, you know you talked to Tim Pawlenty, how can you predict five percent growth in your plan. And there were -- you know so there weren't a lot of specifics given to those independent voters about what better plans the Republicans would have --

KING: Early though --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Early though, did you see someone up there last night that you think if they grow at a good rate, that's somebody I can see winning that debate?

MOLINARI: You know I think -- clearly I think most of us sat back and said you know one of the reasons as Erick said we adopt a frontrunner from the last time is because they have that experience. And I think Mitt Romney sort of showed that composure and was much more relaxed and if you look at the tapes from the last time around. But in general I thought every candidate did a really good job. There were no cringe-worthy moments. There were no birther, you know announcements. In general --

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI: You know they stuck to the script and as a Republican I looked at them and I might have disagreed with some of the ways they went and some of the thoughts that they brought forth, but as a Republican, I was kind of proud of how they all --

KING: Good --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICKSON: It was good to see them focused on the president and not each other.

KING: Very good first debate --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just wait.

KING: Erick Erickson, Gloria Borger says just wait. (INAUDIBLE) I appreciate your coming and still to come here tonight, you won't want to miss this. CNN's Arwa Damon takes a daring trip, crossing from Turkey into Syria and finds a growing humanitarian crisis.

And next the Republican House speaker clashes with the Democratic White House on Libya, but the most interesting foreign policy debate at the moment might be inside the GOP.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Here's the latest news you need to know right now. A big day on Wall Street, the Dow Industrials, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq posted their best gains since April. The government says inflation isn't that bad and consumer spending hasn't slowed as much as many experts had feared.

Also today the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke again warned Congress not to play games with raising the federal debt ceiling. Listen to what he says will happen if lawmakers don't act.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN BERNANKE, FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN: The Treasury would soon find it necessary to prioritize among and withhold critical disbursements such as Social Security and Medicare payments and funds for the military.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: When we come back as Republicans try to pick a nominee for president, yes, they are arguing over taxes and spending, but also a big fight over foreign policy. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: The field could look a little different for our next Republican debate. The former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman joins the GOP field next week; he's choosing Ellis Island and Lady Liberty for his backdrop for the big announcement.

And there's a new potential candidate on the block and a long way from home in New York City tonight, also there, our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin. The Texas Governor Rick Perry, Jess, after the debate last night, does he see an opening to get in?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Of course he is not saying, John, because he is just in a listening and thinking mode, but he did say earlier today that he didn't think that last night's debate moved the ball. In other words, no clear frontrunner emerged, and in this room which is Lincoln Day Dinner of Republican -- New York County Republicans, there are a lot of folks I talked to who say they feel a draft Romney movement coming on them, they really would like to see him jump in because they see an opening.

KING: Now, they see an opening. What do they think Rick Perry brings to the race that the seven candidates we had on stage last night don't?

YELLIN: It is a combination. It's obviously the fact that he has a certain amount of charisma and energy, a willingness to go on the attack and fight. You know he has got the sort of boldness, lack of fear about really bringing the fight to the opponent and theoretically that would be President Obama if he were to get the nomination.

Also, he has got that combination of social conservative credentials, an ability to raise money as the head of the Republican Governors Association, he has access to many donors, and as a Texas Republican of course many donors there. But he also has this success story with the economy in Texas, because as you know the economy in Texas has been outperforming the economy as a whole across the nation, and that can be a very compelling story running against President Obama were he to make it that far. That's what you hear from Republicans who think that he would have some promise as a nominee were he to get there -- John.

KING: And we're showing our viewers some pictures of Governor Perry -- is in the back of that room -- hard to see him sometimes, but we'll show you the live image if we can. One last question Jess -- when Speaker Gingrich's senior staff essentially fired the candidate last week, a number of them have very close ties to Governor Perry from running his Texas campaign, so there is a campaign in waiting, if you will, a staff, is there not?

YELLIN: That's right. And one of his -- I should say one of Newt Gingrich's top -- former top aides is traveling here with Rick Perry. That's not a defection because he also worked for Governor Perry prior to working for Newt Gingrich, but you know, now he's freed up and a free agent, if you will, so if Governor Perry chooses to run, there are plenty of free agents available to him to get a campaign up and going. And as I mentioned, it is not insignificant that he also has a donor database that he can tap easily, plus access to a small donor database because of his alliance with sort of Tea Party interest groups. So he could get something going rather easily if he decides to take the plunge.

KING: Sometimes there's a good horse looking for a good jockey, sometimes there's a good jockey looking for a good horse -- Jessica Yellin watching Governor Perry tonight in New York. We'll stay on top of that story.

The Republican speaker of the House sent a blunt warning to the Obama White House today about U.S. military involvement in Libya. In a letter to the president Speaker John Boehner notes that Sunday will mark 90 days since Congress was informed of the commander in chief's decision to use American military fire power in Libya.

That letter goes on to say this. Quote, "It would appear that in five days the administration will be in violation of the war powers resolution unless it asks for and receives authorization from the Congress or withdraws all U.S. troops and resources from the mission." Tough words, but it would be wrong to see this just as partisan showdown.

As we saw in our presidential debate last night, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party, not only over Libya but more broadly over the use of U.S. military force overseas. Our senior analyst David Gergen is here with us to talk about this.

And David, I want to begin just by playing a little bit of the candidates last night. You get the differing views. Again, John McCain was the nominee last time, a muscular foreign policy. Do not be afraid to send troops into Iraq, into Afghanistan. John McCain said the president said was too late getting into Libya. George W. Bush in 2000 campaigned promising a humble foreign policy, but after 9/11 he had the Bush Doctrine, again, potential muscular use of force. Listen to the differences among the candidates last night in New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: And I want those troops to come home, based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.

PAUL: I wouldn't wait for my generals. I'm the commander in chief. I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do and I'd bring them home as quickly as possible, and I'd get them out of Iraq as well and I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen and I'd quit bombing Pakistan. I'd start home because we could save hundreds of billions of dollars.

PAWLENTY: And the first duty of president of the United States is leader of this nation and commander in chief is to make sure this nation is safe. So you bet, if there are individuals I have intelligence on in groups in Yemen that present a threat to our security interest in that region or to the United States of America, you can bet they will hear from me and we will continue those bombs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: What do you make, David, of this debate, when a party is looking for a new nominee, it is searching for a new leader. Sometimes it tries to sort some things out. What's happening here?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well it is remarkable, John. It is a very different change of tone from just the last election in 2008. These were a group of candidates who sounded pretty isolationist for the most part. When Mitt Romney basically said bring the troops out of Afghanistan as fast as you can, and several of them lined up against the Libyan mission, you know, it is a big change of tone.

I think in part, John, it is a war weariness that they are reflecting in part this is the first time I can remember in many years when there's a wide open Republican nomination and there's no sitting senator among the candidates, so we've had McCain, for example, in the past, who sounded that voice. It's a much more hawkish voice.

There's nobody like that here. It was striking last night after the debate was over Ron Paul, who is the biggest --

(AUDIO GAP)

GERGEN: -- of course and it's almost straight down the line, no, no, no, we are not going to get involved. He said -- he told Anderson Cooper after the debate, he said you know I find the candidates this year much closer to me than they were back in 2008.

KING: And they are, not all of them, but many of them are. And they don't treat him with the scorn that John McCain --

GERGEN: Right.

KING: -- treated Ron Paul with back in 2008. Let's have an example of that. I want you to listen -- I was asking Congresswoman Bachmann last night about Libya. She's on the House Intelligence Committee. She does not think the United States should be involved militarily in Libya. Here is one of the reasons why.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BACHMANN: What possible vital American interest could we have to empower al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya, the president was absolutely wrong in his decision on --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Speaker --

GINGRICH: Ten years after 9/11 our intelligence is so inadequate that we have no idea what percent of the Libyan rebels are in fact al Qaeda.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: There's two of the serious candidates for president in the Republican Party there, David, saying we don't know who the Libyan opposition is. We can't trust that there is not al Qaeda involved. Listen here to the last Republican nominee, John McCain, who says he knows these people and he has no problem with them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I do believe that this is a legitimate government; there are concerns about the makeup of it. They are on Facebook. You can -- you can -- they've got a Web site. You can see who they are and what they're about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Does it -- does it matter? This is a soul searching is what a primary process is about, finding a new leader. But does it matter when you have -- it's a Democratic president, but when you're in the middle of these crises -- the country is dealing with these crises to have a party that is essentially trying to sort it out?

GERGEN: Well it does matter because it will clearly send a signal to others -- other nations if the Republican Party is split over a muscular foreign policy. You know they may just want to wait it out. They may get something that's much different. I mean this is -- the Republicans have been the hawks.

I mean the neoconservatives after all you know picked up that banner and charged into Iraq and charged into Afghanistan and to have the Republican candidates now basically say let's get out of Afghanistan as quickly as we can, or to attack the Libyan thing, you know if you're Gadhafi and watching this, you might take -- you know I don't want to go too far with this because Gadhafi is -- I think he's going to be gone soon, but -- and good riddance -- but you know a lot of Republicans were pushing President Obama to be much more aggressive and muscular in Libya.

And John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others thought that we ought to lower the boom on Gadhafi. It was not that long ago, of course, that President Reagan went after him with some bombs after terrorist attack in Berlin. You know, Republicans have traditionally taken a very hard line against Gadhafi and a lot of these terrorist activities, so I was surprised last night by this and I also wonder where it's going to lead in terms of defense spending among these candidates. If they want to spend -- if they refuse to cut spending, what is it the military is supposed to be for when we got terrorists facing us? It almost seems like in some ways a repudiation of lot of what George W. Bush was trying to do and I was surprised.

KING: An interesting point. Not only criticism of the Democratic president but in many ways perhaps criticism -- you used the word repudiation of George W. Bush. We'll keep an eye on this. It's a very interesting debate within the Republican primary.

David Gergen, as always, thanks for your insight.

Still ahead here, inside Syria's humanitarian crisis and does Israel want Syria's Assad to stay or go?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Tonight, you can look at the map and see that we are seeing multiple reports of Syrian security forces widening their crackdown, especially in the northwestern part of the country. The government says it's pursuing rebels. Witnesses say the regime's forces are burning fields and destroying people's homes.

Now, the Syrian government consistently refuses to allow CNN and other news organizations official permission to enter the country to try to cover this dramatic story.

But, tonight, we have some exclusive pictures of the humanitarian crisis caused by this brutal crackdown. I'll show you on the map.

Today, CNN's Arwa Damon was allowed to cross the border. She came in from Turkey into this area of Syria, we're not going to say exactly where right here. She spent several hours in a camp filled with people who fled the Syrian military advance. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the campsite located just across the Syrian-Turkish border inside Syria. The conditions are so dire that as you've been walking through here, individuals keep coming up to us, wanting to show us just how much the families are struggling to survive.

The women here are visibly upset. They arrived a few days ago from one of the small villages outside of Jisr al-Shughour. And they really don't have much shelter either.

These children with them that don't even have, you know, proper shoes. They're not able to stay clean. They are filthy.

And this is just an incredibly desperate situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Arwa Damon joins us now live. She's back across the border in Turkey.

Arwa, amazing reporting. Help us understand the situation, where you are -- especially where have the families -- the refugees, the families who are fleeing. Where are they staying, what is their mindset? Are they looking for a new place? Are they hoping to go home?

DAMON: Well, John, they have the most rudimentary living conditions imaginable. The tents, if one can even call them that, that there are under a little more than some tarp, often times strung between two trees. It's been raining quite strongly the last few nights, thankfully, not tonight.

But in many cases, a lot of them are saying that they had to actually spend the entire night standing up because the ground beneath them had just turned into pure mud.

Now, some of them are waiting to cross into Turkey. Some of them, though, are choosing to stay, because they're hoping against hope that perhaps one of their loved ones who went missing in the chaos as so often has been the case would turn up, or they are also desperate that they will be able to go back home.

But, John, one young man who tried to make the journey back home three days ago, was on his motorcycle, and he said came across the Syrian military creeping through the (INAUDIBLE). They shot at him. He went running back to their camp.

And that story, among others, have sent tails of horror amongst those refugees camped out there, because they fear that the Syrian military is now coming for them, inching its way even closer to the Turkish border, John.

KING: And, Arwa, it's very important, because as I just note, we can't get into Syria. We have been trying. You have been trying personally for weeks to try to cover this crackdown.

When you talk to these people, you use the word horror. What specifically do they describe seeing and experiencing?

DAMON: You know, John, you ask them that question, and the first response that they say is: I cannot put into words what I have seen. It was horrific. It was a nightmare.

And the stories range from individuals who saw others shot and killed in front of them to people who say they witnessed Syrian security forces burning fields around their villages and their livestock, destroying their homes. Many people managed said that they managed to flee at the last minute as the Syrian military was entering into their homes.

It's chilling. It's incredibly difficult. The children, I speak to them. You know, on the one hand, sometimes, they do laugh. They do appear to be playing in this filthy river, in the water that people are all using to bathe in. But you talk to parents and they tell you how traumatized these children are, and they're really struggling in this particular camp site because there's a lot of disease that is now going around.

And there's one man who set up this makeshift pharmacy was trying to help. They didn't have medicine at hand to deal with the need.

These are people who say that they fled a nightmare, but now, they are being faced with an entirely different set of challenges. And the biggest difficulty is they don't know when they're going to be able to go home. And they keep asking us, wondering if we have any sort of insight as to when the regime of President Bashir al-Assad may actual fall. But, of course, that's a question that we can't answer either.

KING: It's a question we cannot answer. But, Arwa Damon, brave reporting there. Arwa, keep up the good work. Stay safe. We'll continue to track the Syrian story as much as we can, including reports that the crackdown continues tonight. Again, Arwa, thanks.

Let's get more perspective of just what is happening inside Syria and just what should the United States and other international countries do to put more pressure on the regime.

Michael Oren is the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Mr. ambassador, Arwa Damon went across the border today from Turkey into Syria. She talked of horror story after horror story from Syrian citizens about the crackdown, about now a refugee crisis. Israel has excellent intelligence on what's going on inside Syria.

Tell us exactly what is happening.

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Well, we see a breakdown on the Syrian internal control, the regime control over it's population. Syria breaking down along ethnic likes there. Syria was cobbled together by the fringe, the earlier part of the 20th century, from various ethnic groups. And it's always been held together by preponderance of central and rather savage force. Now, we see people rising up and challenging that central savage force.

KING: A challenge to the central force or a tipping point that perhaps could crumble the regime?

OREN: Perhaps, indeed -- though that regime is a brutal regime and it has many means at its disposal to crush opponents. We've seen it. They've used tanks against their own people, helicopter gunships against their own people.

Keep in mind that Bashir al-Assad's father 30 years ago killed anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people in one day who rose up against him. His son is continuing that horrible tradition.

KING: And so, the question is: what should the world try to do about this?

I want you to listen to Mark Toner. He's the State Department spokesman. The Obama administration rhetoric is getting increasingly tough, but it doesn't go quite to the end in calling for regime change. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We are at work to a variety of fora, including the United States, at trying to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, trying to isolate him. But I think what you're seeing increasingly is that Assad is doing a pretty good job himself of isolating Syria, and then making it more and more of an international pariah.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Would Israel like the United States to say Assad must go, or despite all your problems with him, do you fear what would come next could be worse?

OREN: Well, I want to say first of all that President Obama has said in unequivocal terms that Assad should agree to genuine form, leading to genuine democracy, or get out of the way in Syria. President Obama said that publicly.

As far as Israel is concerned, it's not a question that we prefer, the devil we know to the devil we don't know. Bashir Assad is sufficiently devilish. We can't -- it's hard for us to imagine someone who would be a worse devil than he is. He has supported Hezbollah, provided 50,000 rockets to the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon, 10,000 to the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza. He is involved in assassinations in Lebanon.

He doesn't even keep a quiet border with us anymore. People used to say that was his big advantage to us. He hasn't done that any more.

Really, we don't see any alternative that could possibly be worse that Bashir al-Assad.

KING: So, does Israel want regime change? Does Israel want the world to demand regime change?

OREN: We want the world to demand genuine reform leading to democracy in Syria.

KING: Do you think Assad is capable of that, though, sir?

OREN: In view of his past record, definitely not.

KING: Definitely not, you say.

Iran is your big worry when it comes to Syria essentially, and many worry about a proxy war playing out in the region. If Assad goes, does Iran gain or lose, or is that a question you just can't answer?

OREN: Well, I think it's clear. I mean, Syria has been a very loyal ally of Iran. It is together with Iran that Syria has supported Hezbollah and Hamas, and I think loss of Syria to Iran would be a major set back to the Iranians.

KING: But what about -- what would happen on your border? The Egyptian has crisis played out in a way that I assume Israel is relative happy with so far, knowing stability after the fall of the Mubarak government again so far. Do you worry that if another regime fell on another border with Israel, there could be chaos in the region?

OREN: I think that right now there is chaos in Syria. I think that there are desperate threats to states throughout the region from Iran. And there are -- as I mentioned earlier -- 60,000 Syrian and Iran supplied rockets aimed at Israeli neighborhoods.

It's very difficult, John, to imagine a situation that's worse than that. I think we can look forward to a better future if what happened in Egypt would transpire in Syria as well.

KING: Mike Oren is the U.S. ambassador from Israel. Mr. Ambassador, thanks for your time today. Very important subject. We'll stay on top of it.

And up next here, what one congressman says is the real reason behind President Obama's quick trip to Puerto Rico today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: President Obama made a quick political trip to Puerto Rico today. He was there for about five hours, just long enough to raise some money and to promise he will support whatever decisions voters in Puerto Rico make about their political future. It could be full independent, statehood or some semi-autonomous status.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.

(CHEERS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Watching the president's trip, a Democratic congressman from the president's hometown who happens to be of Puerto Rico descent, Congressman Luis Gutierrez says the president's trip -- well, he thinks it was more about here than there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), ILLINOIS: I think the trip of the president of the United States to the island of Puerto Rico has a lot more to do with the 860,000 Puerto Ricans that live in the state of Florida, maybe the nearly 400,000 that live in the state of Pennsylvania, two key battleground states in the upcoming. Money will do good, too -- the $1.5 million.

But let's put it in context. He didn't speak -- Puerto Rico, the unemployment rate is over 20 percent, twice as high as the rest of the nation of United States of America. They have an economic engine that has stalled and has broken down. Thirty thousand employees fired.

I mean, they have severe economic -- I would have thought he would have gone there to speak about how it is you improve the socioeconomic conditions of the people. But if it's a campaign stop, there's nothing wrong with that, presidents have done it before. And it's nice. So, he visited some people in a sun-filled island but with lots of guayaberas and I'm sure there's lots of wonderful photos that have been taken. KING: But, yes, that's pretty tough words. That's how you view this -- just essentially the president going to raise money, help himself here politically. It seems like you have sort of a cynical view of the whole thing.

GUTIERREZ: Well, I just -- look, you asked me, John, and I read the speech carefully. He said -- just so that you understand, I was there in Puerto Rico when he was candidate Barack Obama. There's an extensive agreement -- I'll send it to you after this interview -- specific things he said he would have an economic detailed plan in order to infuse the economy of Puerto Rico with stimulus for jobs.

I mean, come on. These are 3.7 American citizens that live on that island that are going through some really devastating times. They are losing homes quicker, the devaluation of homes, the joblessness that exists there. There are severe problems.

And I think that it's always good to match, you know, actions with your words. To say yes, you care about the people of Puerto Rico. It's nice you that went there.

And, you know, I don't want to begrudge him the visit to Puerto Rico. But let's put it in its proper context. It really much more I believe a political visit than one that creates job opportunities and economic wealth.

KING: And as you do that, you're saying promise broken, essentially, Mr. President. You promised more to the people of Puerto Rico than you've given them.

And you also write in "The Huffington Post" today very tough words about an issue we've talked before, your views of the president on immigration, specifically the DREAM Act in this case.

Now, you're a Democrat. You're from the president's adopted hometown. Why so tough?

GUTIERREZ: Well, because I want him to be re-elected president of the United States. And I know that sounds contradictory. I cannot -- OK. So, this Thursday, I'll be in -- out in Pittsburgh. And then I'll go to Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York on Saturday, and next week, Oregon. I'll be campaigning around the country in order to create the kind of grassroots effort to get the president to take executive action.

But listen, John, I will return to all of those states, and I will work vigorously to go back there and say you know something, he didn't just speak, it wasn't just a photo opportunity in Puerto Rico or in El Paso or a nice speech -- or a nice speech about what we need. He took the kinds of action that really improved the quality of life and he kept his word.

And then I can go back there and campaign and get him re-elected president of the United States.

KING: But will you -- will you not do that? You're complaining in "The Huffington Post" article about deportations. Will you not go out and campaign for the president? Will you not go into the Latino community across this country in all of those key states and say you can trust this man if he doesn't do more and do more soon?

GUTIERREZ: John, my word and my activism and my presence will become irrelevant unless the president clearly -- there's a door that's wide open, and the Republicans have just -- have kind of said, "Step aside, Latinos, we really don't care." And they've opened this wide door.

I want the president to walk through that door with actions and with a commitment through his actions as president of the United States. Then it becomes really, John, irrelevant what I have to say, those people will do that.

KING: But if he doesn't, Congressman -- if he doesn't walk through that door, will you say, "Mr. President, sorry, you're on your own, I'm not going to help you now"?

GUTIERREZ: It would become irrelevant what I say, really, John. What's going to happen -- this is really not a choice about Democrats and Republicans and about asking people to vote for a Republican candidate or someone other than the president of the United States. And I want to make that absolutely clear.

This is about how many people we can get to the polls, how many of those 850,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida, how many of the millions that he's going to need in key battleground states that he won before, New Mexico and Colorado and Florida and Nevada. We want to make sure -- I want to make sure that there is a sense of -- how would I say it, here are the promises that are made, here are the people that came out to vote, and they're actually in unison with one another. That is, people voted, came out, and the promises were kept.

KING: Some tough words from the Democratic congressman, Luis Gutierrez. Sir, thanks for your time tonight.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you so much, John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: When we come back, we'll fact check a claim made in last night's Republican debate. And, well, there was something I did last night that some of you liked, some of you differed, didn't like. Someone else put it to music.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We had some technical issues that kept us from doing this throughout the show, but one of the things we wanted to do tonight and we'll continue today and the days ahead is to put some political rhetoric to the test as the campaign unfolds.

Here's one we want to put to the truth test from our Republican debate last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The reason we're seeing this second dip is because of energy prices. And this president has put a stop sign against oil drilling --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, that's a bit of a stretch. What Senator Santorum, the point he was trying to make is that he wants the president to approve more domestic drilling. But the stop sign, the stop sign rhetoric is a bit misleading. Let's go and show you the facts there.

Again, the senator wants more crude oil drilling. But if you just look back from the Bush administration days into the Obama administration, the available statistics so far, domestic crude oil production is actually up in the Obama administration. That's one of the things we wanted to check.

We also wanted to show you something else. It was very important to me as the moderator. And some of you enjoyed the job I did. Some of you thoroughly did not enjoy the job I did. It comes with the territory. That's OK.

My top priority was trying to keep it as fair as possible, seven candidates. You should try it sometime. It's hard to manage seven candidates in a free-wheeling live television debate over two hours.

What we wanted to do is split the time relatively easily. You see Governor Romney got the most time, Herman Cain the least time, about a two-minute difference between them. I wish those numbers were a bit closer.

But if you look in here, everybody is pretty close. We went back and looked. This is the most fair we've been able to be at CNN in our history in a multicandidate debate like this.

I would defy you to look elsewhere. I like when our competitors do debates, too. I watch them -- nothing against them. We believe this was pretty fair in keeping the time running as consistently as possible.

Maybe you liked it. Maybe you didn't.

Another thing we tried to do that has received some criticism online and, again, other people liked it. I call it "this or that." Now, we asked a lot of serious questions about the economy, about foreign policy, about other issues in this country, but many of these candidates you don't know before. So, we wanted to take some time to just ask them, yes, a silly question -- to see how they responded, to see if they would laugh, to see if they would smile, to see if they would joke. Some of you didn't like it.

I just want to make this point. The debate was two hours. "This or that" took up two minutes and 41 seconds total.

Now, as we went through last night, I enjoyed it. I thought we learned a little bit about our candidates. This morning, our friends at Sirius XM Radio took that segment and put it to rap music. We decided to one up today. We took their audio, matched it up with the video. Have a peek.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Every time we go to break or come back from break I'm going to ask the candidates one at a time -- a question we call "this or that." This or that.

(MUSIC)

KING: This or that. This or that.

Leno or Conan?

SANTORUM: Neither -- probably Leno.

KING: Congressman Paul, BlackBerry or iPhone?

REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: BlackBerry.

KING: BlackBerry it is.

Mr. Speaker, "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol"?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: "American Idol."

KING: "American Idol" it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's all for us tonight. We had fun with the candidates. We were trying to have a good smile there. We're never perfect here, but we do our best and we try.

That's all for us tonight. I'll see you right here tomorrow night and maybe at another debate down the road.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.