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JOHN KING, USA

Straw Poll and Debate; Obama's Reelection Preview

Aired August 11, 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: Good evening everyone.

Tonight the president hits the road with a reelection campaign preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Unfortunately what we've seen in Washington the last few months has been the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock, and that gridlock has undermined public confidence and impeded our efforts to take the steps we need for our economy. It's made things worse instead of better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But how risky is it for the man who promised in his last campaign to change Washington to concede now it's even worse?

Plus, it's a big week in the Republican race to pick the president's 2012 challenger. And with middle-class economic anxiety front and center, well, the early GOP front runner might want to rethink this line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: (INAUDIBLE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Governor Romney is also exhibit "A" if you need any proof this week matters. Saturday's Iowa Republican straw poll could knock a candidate or two from the race and so Democratic activists are now turning up at GOP events hoping to rattle the Republicans who would be president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you going to do to strengthen Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid without cutting benefits?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are you going to do?

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: You've had your chance. Anything else you want to say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I'm going to see what you're going to say.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: You get to ask your question and I get to give my answer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right.

ROMNEY: If you don't like my answer, you can vote for someone else. But now it's my turn to give my answer.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There you go.

ROMNEY: Are you ready for an answer?

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: I'm not going to raise taxes. That's my answer. I'm not going to raise taxes.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: If you want somebody to raise taxes, you can vote for Barack Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And if you think that's a little feisty, well Romney will soon face a different challenge. CNN is told tonight that Texas Governor Rick Perry is accelerating his planning and will officially join the Republican presidential field Saturday. Why does that matter? Well check this out. Our new CNN/ORC poll shows Romney atop the Republican pack with Governor Perry already running second.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: When David Axelrod sits around and looks at the electoral maps, looks at the strengths and weaknesses as you see them in the Republican field, who worries you more, the guy from Boston or the guy from Austin?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: In a moment we'll give you David Axelrod's answer. Plus the president's top political advisers take on the jobs challenge, the Republican field and liberal criticism that the president isn't being tough enough on Republicans.

But, first, the politics of the economy and the state of play in Iowa. Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is here and in Ames, Iowa, tonight two of the country's finest political reporters, Dan Balz of "The Washington Post" and Jeff Zeleny of "The New York Times". I want to go out to the field first. Gentlemen, I'm a little bit jealous. I'm stuck indoors tonight.

Dan Balz to you first -- are we going to wake up Sunday morning or Monday morning and be missing a Republican candidate? Will somebody come in third or fourth who needed to come in first or second in that Ames straw poll and be gone?

DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, it's certainly possible, John. As we all know, Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota has a tremendous amount on the line Saturday if he finishes really badly, I'm sure he's determined to stay in, but the question is whether he'll really have the resources to be able to do that for any length of time. If he were to win the straw poll or spring a real surprise you would have a new narrative about his candidacy, so there's a lot on the line for him, but there's a lot on the line for everybody over the next few days.

KING: A lot on the line for everybody over the next few days, Jeff Zeleny, and two people who are not on the straw poll ballot, two people who are not in any of the debates as yet, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. Rick Perry is getting in on Saturday we're told and Sarah Palin is rolling through Iowa. How much does that distract, potentially disrupt, the Republicans who actually are running?

JEFF ZELENY, NAT'L POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think it disrupts things somewhat. I mean really for several weeks here there's been a quiet movement and now a not-so-quiet movement amongst some supporters of Rick Perry in Iowa, urging people to come to the straw poll on Saturday and vote for him in a write-in ballot, so if he happens to do, you know, better than expected in a write-in, you know, better than even Mitt Romney, for example, I think that that will be at least a mini story line out of here.

But boy everyone is also wondering what is Sarah Palin up to exactly. Is she coming in here just to get into the spotlight? Has she not ruled out running? People aren't sure, but I'm not sure that this week is going to bring as much -- is going to answer as many questions as it's going to raise really. But I think Dan is right, on Sunday morning, you know if the results aren't as good for Governor Pawlenty or perhaps a couple of others the field may contract at least slightly.

KING: The field may contract a bit slightly and Jess, as all this plays out, the president is getting more active. He's in Michigan today. He's going to be in Iowa soon. He's delivering a message saying I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying and I need some help in Congress to create more jobs and he's also remember the candidate who promised to change Washington, to get Washington to work, is telling people that one of the problems is this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: But what I want everybody to understand here, the problem is not that we don't have answers. The problem is, is that folks are playing political games.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I don't think there's any question, Jess, that there are political games on both sides. The president means there are Republicans getting in the way. I just have this question and maybe it's a lousy theory, but how hard is it, how steep is the hill for a guy whose message last time was elect me and I'll fix Washington to be out in the country saying send me back to Washington and I'll fix Washington?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's incredibly steep not just because Washington is so gridlocked but also because the economic picture is so grim and because people do tend to vote with their pocketbooks. But it's not in the view of advisers to the president insurmountable and that is in their view, John, because he remains personally well liked, because if you look at, for example, a recent "Washington Post" poll about 53 percent of Americans are saying that they are still going to vote for him or open to considering voting for him.

Their argument, take it or leave it, their argument is that Americans continue to keep an open mind to him because they think he's trying hard. And so among other reasons and they like him personally, so if you listen to him today, what you're hearing from him is he's revealing a bit of this frustration that I'm hearing from them behind closed doors, now he's showing it in public view, which is both an honest frustration and also a message to independents that he's trying to break this gridlock. He's trying to be the guy he promised to be when he was here and he'll sell that message consistently on the campaign trail that he's been trying, they're stymieing him.

KING: And, Dan and Jeff, let's focus a bit on what Jess just said there about the president saying to end the political games in Washington is clearly aimed directly at independents. I want to pull up the map because you guys are in one of the great states in American politics here. We pull up the map -- I'm going to pull up Iowa, Electoral College perspective. You know it's a relatively small state, but this is 2008.

Obama carries it. We go back to 2004. Bush carries it. We go back to 2000. Al Gore narrowly carries it. A new Terrance (ph) poll out today, it's a Republican firm, but it shows the president's support among independents, Dan Balz, dropping in Iowa. You guys are out on the ground there. How much of the frustration is directed at Washington generally and how much of it has a specific focus, whether it's on the Republicans or against the president?

BALZ: Well, I think that it is very much focused on Washington generally, but I don't think there's any way for the president to step outside of that as he's trying to do on the campaign trail. That was a lot easier four years ago when he was brand new and was an outsider. He is now Washington. He is identified as the person who came to Washington to change it. It's much more difficult to make the case that politics is broken and one way or another, I haven't been able to fix it. So, he's got a much tougher message and nothing that we se so far in the numbers suggest that he's getting through to independents. Now, we're obviously a long way away from the real engagement on this debate, but at this point, he's got a tremendous amount of work to do to shore up his support among those independents who were critical to his election in 2008.

KING: And, Jeff, I want to show you some new numbers in our polling tonight that I think reinforces Dan's important point. We ran a horse race and again it's 15 months to the presidential election, so this doesn't tell you what's going to happen next November, but it can tell you about the state of play right now.

President Obama against Governor Perry, 51 Obama, 46 Perry. President Obama against Congresswoman Bachmann, 51 Obama, 45, Bachmann, so against two candidates we would agree on the conservative end of the Republican field, the president gets a bare majority of 51. But against Rudy Giuliani who is not running but who you would call a moderate Republican, Giuliani 51, Obama 45.

And against Governor Romney who I think many voters remember from last time would view as a center right candidate but not to the far right of the Republican field, essentially a dead heat, 49-48. So you could look at that and say it's name ID. Everybody knows Romney. Everybody knows Giuliani or you could look at that and say if the Republicans pick somebody more toward the center they do pretty well against the president.

ZELENY: I think you're absolutely right, and that is the big question here. I mean that's what we're going to see in a debate tonight at the straw poll really you know as we go forward in the next six months. We don't know what type of nominee this Republican Party is going to produce. As you travel out to town meetings and see candidates interacting with voters, a lot of the voters who are coming to see these candidates at this point are the people who are looking for the red meat, you know, just the -- the rabid intensity.

We're not sure how much the -- of the Tea Party strain that we saw in the midterm elections is going to play out in the presidential election or not. But Mitt Romney is -- has had this on-again, off- again relationship with how much he's going to compete in the Iowa caucuses. He knows -- his advisers know that if he's going to be the nominee, he would certainly like to win Iowa if he's going to defeat President Obama, so I think you'll see him here a lot more. But his big challenge is not being drawn into the fray here.

He was a little bit in the debate over the debt ceiling. He opposed it but interestingly all five members of Congress from Iowa opposed it as well, but Democrats and the Republicans for different reasons, of course, so it's very volatile here, but for Mitt Romney it just depends how much he gets pulled toward the right should he become the nominee and that's still a big question.

KING: And we'll watch it all play out, a big week in Iowa, Jeff Zeleny, Dan Balz there, Jessica Yellin at the White House, we appreciate your help tonight, too. And still ahead here proof what goes does must come up. Stocks surged as a roller coaster week on Wall Street takes another twist.

And next back to Iowa where the Republicans looking to challenge President Obama are facing their first big competition.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Iowa caucuses are still a ways off, when you see snow, you'll know the first official 2012 contest is close at hand, and yet it's entirely possible a vote in Iowa this weekend will end the candidacy or two. It's the Ames straw poll where the candidates pay for the best space in the hall and then pay more if they like to bus supporters in from all across the state. What it is, is a big fund- raiser for the state Republican Party and a big event like it or not in the nomination contest, so who has the upper hand and who might be a former candidate not long after the votes are counted?

And how will new moves by two Republicans not on the straw poll ballot, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry change things? Matt Strawn is the Iowa Republican Party chairman and Richard Schwarm is a long time Iowa Republican activist who is supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney this cycle. Gentlemen, I want to bring up the straw poll ballot first for our viewers as we show it here out in Ames.

We know on the ballot is Congresswoman Bachmann. We know Mr. Cain the businessman, Herman Cain, Thad McCotter -- many people might not know he's a congressman from Michigan -- Ron Paul is very well known, Governor Pawlenty from Minnesota, Senator Santorum from Pennsylvania, former Speaker Gingrich is on the ballot, Governor Huntsman making his first appearance on the ballot there, and Governor Romney. This is the ballot as it now stands.

Mr. Chairman to you first, I know you've got to be a diplomat here, but say Governor Pawlenty from neighboring Minnesota he's put a lot into the state of Iowa, if he comes in third or fourth, is he still in this race?

MATT STRAWN, IOWA REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN: Well, you know, that will be a decision, you know, that the various campaigns will have to make seeing where they place on Saturday evening. But what I can tell you is that he's got a very robust organization that he's put in place here with an infrastructure that will deliver those Pawlenty votes that they have around the state, but, you know, I'm a sports guy, so that's why they play the game. We'll find out on Saturday how the candidates fare.

KING: That is why they play the game, and it's a fun game you play in Iowa with the straw poll and then the caucuses. Mr. Schwarm to you, Governor Romney sort of has -- Jeff Zeleny of "The New York Times" was just calling an in and out relationship with the state of Iowa. He has been playing down especially the significance of the straw poll saying that, sure, he'll be around, but will he invest a lot in the caucuses. What is your sense? We do know a lot of Romney supporters in the state have gotten a phone call saying hey it would really help us out if you came to Ames. Is he all-in or is he being a little cute here?

RICHARD SCHWARM, FORMER IOWA REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN: Well I think that his national strategy is to try to play more national this time and not as much in Iowa. I was a big supporter of his in 2007 and one of the reasons I'm uncommitted at this point is that they're not playing aggressively in Iowa as I would like. So, I'm puzzled also exactly what the strategy is. I can -- I told him what I think it should be, but I'm not quite sure what it is.

KING: OK. As two guys who are invested in Iowa, I want to ask you first about this. Governor Rick Perry, he's not on the straw poll ballot, although people could write him in. He will declare on Saturday in South Carolina, he's going to fly to New Hampshire, he's going to fly to Iowa, Mr. Chairman to you first, in terms of the buzz, you've heard this, you've heard it in past cycles I know. People say, oh, this is the field, we want somebody new. Compared say to the buzz around Fred Thompson in 2008, what is it around Rick Perry now?

STRAWN: Well and I think we recognize that by adding a write-in for the first time. It's the first time the party has ever provided a write-in possibility. And I think it speaks to somewhat the fluid and unsettled nature of the field currently and there's no question that there are activists around the state that have been encouraging a Rick Perry write-in, but we look forward to seeing him in Waterloo on Sunday. And just like anybody that comes to the Iowa caucuses, to be successful, you need to be on the ground here looking Iowans in the eye and giving them a chance to ask you a tough question, so I know from Iowa Republicans I talk to that's the expectation when they see Rick Perry here. Just like everybody else, he's going to have to go through the process.

KING: He won't be participating actively at least in the straw poll, Mr. Schwarm, but he is getting geared up and he's given every indication he's going to play hard for the caucuses. I want you to listen -- Governor Perry did an interview with WMUR, our New Hampshire affiliate, describing why he thinks he is as good or probably better in his view than the rest of these guys and congresswoman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: I happen to think that I'm as qualified or better qualified than anyone in the field to not only make that claim, but to lay out that vision and lay out those principles that have worked truly well in Texas. We've created more jobs than any other state in the nation. As a matter of fact, in the last two years we've created almost half of all the jobs created in America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Any chance, Mr. Schwarm that if your last candidate, Mr. Romney, doesn't hit the accelerator in Iowa, you could end up with Governor Perry?

SCHWARM: I think it's possible. I mean, I'm very excited about the entire field we have. I think we're pleased that we have such a wide array of choices. I fully expect to be enthusiastic about somebody. And I could probably take a very good case for almost all of them. Certainly Governor Perry is somebody who I will look forward to getting to know.

KING: I want to ask you both about Governor Palin. She's going to come to the state there. She's not on the straw poll ballot. Many of us for a long time have assumed Governor Palin is not running. Let me close this one down and bring this one up. It works a little better this way if you do it right. I'm showing our viewers a poll of her standing among Republican voters and how many Republicans what percentage want her to be the nominee.

You see since the 2008 campaign it's gone down and peaked up, 12 percent now of Republicans nationally want Governor Palin to be their nominee. That's down from 32 percent just after the 2008 campaign. Mr. Chairman, is it fine that she's coming out this week or if she's not a candidate, should she stay out and let the others get the attention?

STRAWN: Well, the Iowa -- the Iowa State Fair's a great place, so, you know, I'm sure she's heard the rumors that it's the place to be here in Iowa, so you know we welcome her there. But I think if she is serious about taking steps to run for president, she's going to be here again over Labor Day weekend, she needs to do those things that have proven what you need to do to be successful in the Iowa caucuses, which is get here and actually let the voters ask tough questions. This isn't the type of process where you can give speeches to thousands or you can, you know, be behind 30-second ads or even Facebook posts. You need to be on the ground letting Iowans look you in the eye and kick the tires and you know I think if you do that you know then you have the potential to see those numbers move that you cited.

KING: Does it bother you at all Mr. Schwarm that she's coming in, she says she'll decide eventually, but in a week that is so important to so many of those other candidates, does it bother you that she's coming in, because as you know, she's pretty good at stealing the spotlight.

SCHWARM: No, I'm happy she's coming. I hope she comes back and comes often. This is more of the candidates, possible candidates, enthusiastic people it's really good for the state. We welcome them all.

KING: Welcome them all. Two good diplomats in Iowa tonight, Mr. Chairman and Mr. Schwarm appreciate your time tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's an Iowa night.

KING: If a Republican wins one of you will be secretary of state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm the former chairman, too.

KING: Yes, I'm sure one of you will be secretary of state if a Republican wins the next election. Gentlemen, appreciate your time tonight.

Still ahead here you can check the 401 (k) tonight. It will look at least better than it did last night.

And there's a prominent Democrat keeping a close eye on all those Republicans out in Iowa -- top Obama 2012 strategist David Axelrod right here with his take on the GOP and the jobs debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Here's the latest news you need to know right now. Another case of whiplash on Wall Street -- the Dow Industrials close up 423 points gaining back most of yesterday's 520- point loss. And Reuters reporting European market regulators just announced that France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium will ban the short selling of stocks starting tomorrow.

More than 1,000 people have now been arrested in the wake of the British riots. Four nights of rioting caused at least $161 million in damage. Amnesty International is demanding that NATO investigate whether a Monday strike on Moammar Gadhafi's forces killed 85 Libyan civilians including 33 children. NATO says it has no evidence of civilian casualties at this point.

When we come back it's not just the Republican candidates for president in Iowa, the president's top strategist is there too. David Axelrod joins us with his take on the Republican field and the president's re-election challenge.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The next election is 453 days, checking the math, 453 days away, so it might sound a little silly to say this is a big week in campaign 2012, but it is. All the Republican candidates out in Iowa, they will debate, most will participate in a big straw poll. Republicans, though, don't have the state to themselves. There with a watchful eye on them is the man directing the president's re-election campaign, David Axelrod. We spoke just a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: David Axelrod, I want to start with some complaints, not from the right, I know you're in Iowa watching the Republicans, but from the left. A lot of liberals and you're hearing it are complaining why isn't the president more tough, why isn't he more aggressive with the Republicans. I want you to listen to the president on the road today complaining about gridlock in Washington, because this is one of the things that make some of his friends on the left mad. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The only thing preventing these bills from being passed is the refusal of some folks in Congress to put country ahead of party. There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: As you know, there are a lot of Democrats who say why won't he say Republicans? Why does he say some in Congress?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Oh I think he's gone -- he's gone after the Republicans in Congress quite a bit, and particularly during this last period. You know, I heard him and you heard him say that a lot. And there is absolutely no doubt that there were Republicans, including some of these presidential candidates, who we're going to hear from tonight, who are actually counseling that the United States of America default on its debt and walk away from its obligations because they thought it would be -- because they wanted to score political points with their -- the base of their parties, so I don't think anybody is confused about -- about the reference when he makes it.

KING: You make that case, and you make it strongly. And I'm sure you and the president will continue to make it through the campaign.

Let me ask you as a veteran strategist, a guy who knows how to frame campaigns, is there some risks, facts or not, the president being out there saying the problem in Washington is gridlock when he campaigned in the first campaign promising to make it different, promising he could end it?

AXELROD: You know, nobody can accuse the president of not trying to forge a bipartisan agreement. Nobody can accuse him of not trying to find compromise. In fact, some on the -- on the left of our party have complained because they feel that he has tried too hard to do that.

The resistance has not come from them, however. The resistance has come from the Republican leaders in Congress, and that's been their strategy.

And now, that whole attitude has infected the Republican presidential race. They're all speaking in those same terms, that, you know, we should be absolutist. That we should take the most extreme positions, and we should not yield and we should not compromise.

Well, that's not the way democracy works, and it's not the way we're going to move this country forward.

KING: I want to get so tom of those candidates in a minute but I want to focus on the broad challenge for the president right now, which is the economy, of course. He's out in Michigan today campaigning, he's going to be across the Midwest over the next few days campaigning, trying to make his case.

How is Obama handling the economy? That's the question in our new poll this week. Thirty-four percent of Americans, essentially one-third of Americans approve; 64 percent disapprove, David Axelrod.

How are things going in country today we asked? Twenty-four percent say, well; 75 percent say badly.

Again, as a veteran political strategist, you know trying to re- elect an incumbent when one-third, only one-third approve of how he's handling the economy, and three-fourths of the country thinks we're heading in the wrong direction -- that is a steep hill to get an incumbent re-elected.

AXELROD: The question people are going to ask themselves as we go into the polling booth is not just about President Obama but also about the path that the other side wants to take. And do they believe that tax cuts for the wealthy and tax loopholes for big corporations should be prized more than education, prized more than the research and development that creates jobs and the innovation sector, prized more than clean energy jobs, prized more than rebuilding our roads and bridges so we can put people to work and improve our country, prized more than Social Security and Medicare. Those are the kinds of issues that are going to be on the ballot in 2012.

And I absolutely believe that the president's vision is one that is rooted in our values and it's one that most Americans support, and we're going to win the election.

KING: That is the choice you hope to frame in the next election. As you know, many Republicans will try to make it a referendum. They will say, this president hasn't kept his promises.

One thing the president has promised repeatedly, we went back through the last 2 1/2 years, is to shift his focus and to pivot to almost a singular focus on one issue, one word. Let's listen --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My bottom line is to make sure that we are saving or creating 4 million jobs.

This is my administration's overriding focus, having brought the economy back from the brink. The question is how are we going to make sure that people are getting back (VIDEO BREAK) will be our number one focus in 2010. My number one focus is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I'm not naive, David Axelrod. I covered the building for 8 1/2 years. I've watched Democrats as president, Republicans as president, and things come up when you're the president of the United States and the leader of the free world.

But, again, in a campaign environment which you know full well, how does the president make the case that I was not distracted by this, I was not distracted by this, I've kept my pledge to focus on issue number one?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, John, let's -- let's stipulate the fact that there's 15 months to go here and the president's goal right now should not be how to -- how to approach the electorate, the president's goal should be how do we fight every day to get additional steps to move this economy forward.

We were losing 750,000 jobs a month when he became president, we've had 17 straight months of job growth, but it's not nearly enough.

How do we accelerate that process? How do we rebuild middle- class economic security?

He's got a series of things that he wants the Congress to act on and act on quickly, from extending the payroll tax cuts, to passing trade treaties to level the playing field so we can sell our products overseas, to reforming these patent laws so small businesses, entrepreneurs, inventors can get their products to market. There's a three-year backlog right now. To passing a new roads program so we can put people back to work rebuilding this country, and the infrastructure program.

There are a lots of things that we can do and we can do right now to move this country forward, to accelerate the economy, and to create more jobs.

And the question is, are we going to play politics for the next 15 months, or are we going to get down to work? And his hope and his challenge to the Congress when they return is to get down to work and do the things that are necessary to move this economy forward.

KING: You mention the time between now and the election and I hope it is well spent. But the president clearly knows this argument is coming. Governor Romney says in a new video, Obama isn't working. Republicans have been critical of his record on economy and jobs in recent days and the president is well aware this is coming.

Listen to the president back home in Chicago at a fund-raiser just the other night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: When I said change we can believe in, I didn't say change we can believe in tomorrow. Not change we can believe in next week. We knew this was going to take time, because we've got this big, messy, tough democracy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We've got this big, messy, tough democracy won't fit on a bumper sticker. How does it work in 2012? What is it, change takes time? Keep the change? How do you frame it, David?

AXELROD: I think the president has a very clear vision of how we recover from this recession and restore the -- the economic security of the middle-class, and those things are related. And that's what this fight is going to be about. It's not going to be about bumper stickers, it's going to be about real lives and about how we lift our economy in a way that's fair, that gives people broad opportunity, that lets people live the lives they want to live.

That's the debate people are looking for.

KING: We learned today that Governor Perry of Texas is definitely in the race. He's going to announce on Saturday. Governor Romney at the moment is perceived as the front-runner. Your campaign has spent a little bit of time focusing on him.

When David Axelrod sits around and looks at the electoral map, looks at the strengths and weaknesses as you see them in the Republican field. Who worries you more, the guy from Boston or the guy from Austin?

AXELROD: Well, John, I can't answer that question for one simple reason, I haven't seen the candidates out there.

The one thing having watched my candidate campaign two years for president is that these campaigns are very revealing. People find out exactly who you are. They test you. They test your ideas.

Just today at the state fair, Governor Romney had a curious exchange with someone there in which he kind of bellicosely said corporations are people, too, when the man was asking why he would value tax cuts for corporations more than strengthening Social Security and Medicare. And, you know, that was a revealing moment.

I don't know how Rick Perry's going to be as a candidate for president. Nobody really does.

So, let's let this campaign play out and se how these candidates present themselves, and I think we'll know more down the line.

KING: I want to ask you about something in our new poll out today. We ran horse race numbers, a lot of the Republicans are running for the president up against President Obama. You're right, it's a long way off but it does tell us a bit how people think right now.

If you look at the president running against Governor Perry, the president gets 51 percent, Governor Perry 46 percent. If you look at the president running against Congresswoman Bachmann, the president gets 51 percent -- the congresswoman gets 45 percent. Those are two candidates, Perry and Bachmann, I would say are on the right of the Republican field.

If you look at one candidate and one potential candidate, we don't think will run, but maybe will run, who are more center/right, Giuliani, 51 percent, Obama, 45 percent. Obama, 49 percent -- Romney, 48 percent. So, if you take candidates or prospective candidates more to the middle, center/right but more to the middle, they tend to do better against the president, which tells me your biggest problem in this campaign is going to be the middle.

AXELROD: Here's the problem with your reasoning, John -- first of all, Perry and Bachmann aren't nearly as well known as Giuliani and Romney, and that obviously gives Giuliani and Romney an advantage in that test. But the bigger flaw in your reasoning is you assume there is a center/right in the Republican Party anymore. And the fact is that Mitt Romney has made it very clear that he's willing to throw in with the Tea Party crowd and the most strident voices in his party. He did it again today when he was talking about taxes and corporations are people, too.

And so, you know, I don't think -- I think the center -- the center of the Republican Party has collapsed. And what you have are a bunch of folks coming out of that Tea Party, the most strident group in the Republican Party, and a bunch of guy of guying knocks on the door asking to get in.

And so, for that reason, I don't know how much of a conclusion I'd draw from your analysis.

KING: David Axelrod, looking forward to the fight, some governing first. Appreciate your time today from Ames, Iowa.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" is coming up at the top of the hour. After three days in Africa, Anderson is in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates tonight. He joins us now with a preview.

Anderson, what do you got?

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": John, we'll have the latest on the situation in Somalia, the crisis just escalating, the U.S. said it's going to donate even more money than they've given so far, but still, a lot more money is needed. A lot more aid is needed. Not enough in the pipeline. As you know, the World Food Program saying they'll run out of food in three weeks.

We also have more, John, tonight on the breaking news, the new Republican presidential contender, Texas Governor Rick Perry saying this is what I'm supposed to be doing, talking about running for the White House. We're going to look tonight at how Perry's run is going to affect GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and also for that matter, President Obama. Paul Begala and Erick Erickson join us for that.

Also tonight keeping them honest, is Mitt Romney trying to have it both ways on the budget deficit and taxes? He's saying right now that he's on board with the GOP plan to cutting the federal deficit without raising taxes. But tonight, we checked his record and guess what? As governor of Massachusetts, his administration highlighted state tax increases to try to get a debt upgrade from S&P. We're keeping them honest.

Also, another American missing in Aruba. This woman, Robyn Gardner, is her name. Police have a suspect in custody. We'll have a live report from Aruba.

Those stories and a lot more -- tonight's "Ridiculist" is back at the top of the hour. All that and more -- John.

KING: Look forward to that, Anderson. We'll see you in just a few minutes. And when we return here, Syria, why is the United States hesitating to say "Assad must go."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: More evidence there of the crackdown in Syria. That is a YouTube video posted. That's Damascus, a small crowd of demonstrators and you hear the gunfire and you see the security forces come into the scene.

The crackdown continuing for months and the big debate in Washington over when the Obama administration should say President Assad of Syria must go. We told you the other night the administration was nearing that point, actually had made a decision. But there's still a bit of a tug-of-war about when to make the announcement.

My conversation with Fouad Ajami, he's the senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Nick Burns, the former U.S. undersecretary of state and the former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Gentlemen, I want to start first with the debate, this divide in the administration, about whether to flat-out use the term "Assad must go." I was told earlier in the week the administering was prepared to do that, but now I'm told there's a bit of a tug-of-war about whether it makes sense for the United States to do that now. Among those saying perhaps best that we wait a bit is the secretary of state.

Listen to this, though, where he comes close --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think we've been very clear in what we have said about his loss of legitimacy. I think we were among the very first to say it. But it's important that it's not just the American voice. And we want to make sure that those voices are coming from around the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Nick Burns, you've been involved in these kinds of debates and conversations while in government. We want to make clear it's not just the American voices.

Why does the secretary of state think that's important before she or President Obama goes out and says Assad must go?

NICK BURNS, FMR. UNDER SECY. OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: You know, John, I think this argument is really heating up in Washington. There are some who believe that if the United States openly calls for the ouster of the Assad regime, it will somehow embolden the regime, give them the excuse saying the United States is behind these protests. That's, of course, nonsense. Everyone knows it's not true. The administration obviously wants to see other countries take this step along with them.

But, you know, the voice of the United States is a very strong one. And if the -- if the Obama administration can get behind this state unequivocally that Assad should leave power, I think it will have a dynamic impact on the European allies.

You're already seeing Turkey distance itself from the Assad regime and you're seeing Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, say quite critical things this week.

So, I think it's time for the administration to make this move.

KING: Fouad, you have long argued it's time if not past time. What do you make of this debate about whether the United States should act alone or as, Nick points out, that's the crux of it, wait for the Europeans, wait for the Turks?

FOUAD AJAMI, SENIOR FELLOW, HOOVER INSTITUTION: Well, we're in the era of leading from behind. This is now, unfortunately, the Obama foreign policy, and one says it sadly. One doesn't enjoy saying this about one's own country and one's own government.

We have no choice but to make this statement. The world is waiting for this statement. And surely we know that when we say that Assad must go, it doesn't mean he's going to pack his bags and go look for a place that would have him. But it will alter the moral and strategic landscape, it will tell the Syrians they're not alone, it will tell the merchants in Damascus and Aleppo who have stood by while Homs and Hama have suffered, that it's time now to begin to think about a new future for Syria beyond the Assad dynasty.

It will matter greatly. It will matter for our own reputation, and it will matter for our own good name. Two thousand people have been skilled and we've waited way too long.

KING: Nick, we have seen the Saudis speak out and condemn what they call the killing machine. The president of the United States today had a conversation with the prime minister of Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan explained why that could be key to what goes forward.

BURNS: You know, John, the Turkish government of Erdogan, Prime Minister Erdogan, has had a rather close relationship with Bashar al Assad for quite some time. You saw the Turkish foreign minister just two days ago in Damascus -- a rather unsuccessful meeting.

And the statement released by the Turkish and the American governments today was carefully worded. The Turks are clearly not willing to call for the ouster of Assad himself. I think it's time for the United States to use the pressure that we do have and the credibility we do have to begin moving the Turks. And an early announcement by the United States I think would do that.

This situation is trending away from Assad. It's now in its fifth month. He has used an extraordinary level of brutal force against dictators, more than 2,000, as the Professor Ajami has said, 2,000 innocent people have been killed. It really is time in my judgment for the United States to make this decision, to be very clear and unequivocal about the fact that Assad has to step down.

KING: And, Fouad, in an interview with CBS, the secretary of state, I thought, was remarkably candid. She said, yes, the United States announced some new sanctions, we talked about those the other day, but she said, look, it's only going to really matter, in her words, if they sanction the oil and gas industry, which means the Europeans who still buy energy from Syria. Why our traditional allies of the United States unwilling to step up and impose those sanctions?

AJAMI: Well, look, Europe has been unwilling to step up, even when things happen within his own backyard. Secretary Burns, Nick knows this -- we know, for example, that during the Bosnia horrors, as people are being massacred in Srebrenica and Sarajevo, the Europeans stood by, the Europeans will never take the lead. And when they have taken the lead, they tried to take the lead, for example, on Libya, it hasn't really worked out very well.

I think we should understand our own primacy in the world. We should honor our own primacy. It is what the people in the region, in the Middle East really respond to. So, that would return to the fact that the president has not yet called on Bashar al-Assad to step down.

You call on him to step down. In fact, you just really alter the landscape, psychologically and you encourage the Europeans to come out and do what must be done.

KING: One of the things that we've been watching for months is whether they would be any cracks in the regime. We've watched that played out in Egypt. We've watched -- we're watching in Libya. And we've been asking that question in Syria.

On the front pages of "The New York Times" today, (INAUDIBLE) writes an article in which he says he's beginning to see come crashes. Quote, "They are starting to be divided. You have people in the government who are really getting frustrated with Assad and his security circle. It's almost like watching a dysfunctional marriage."

Nick, to you first -- do you believe that is possible, that this, what Fouad calls a mafia regime could crumble from the inside?

BURNS: I do think it's possible. It is an extraordinary thing, John, because since -- for 40 years, Hafez al-Assad and now Bashar al- Assad have ruled with an iron fist. You haven't seen this type of dissension within the Syrian government. You have a resignation of the defense minister.

You now have sanctions again, (INAUDIBLE), the president, very wealthy cousin of Bashar al Assad. You can see this regime beginning to fray around the edges the way that you saw Gadhafi's regime begin to fall apart a couple of months ago.

This may take time. It may not be imminent. But it's very significant to see these voices of descent within the Syrian government over the last week.

KING: Fouad Ajami, Nick Burns, appreciate your insights tonight, gentlemen. Thank you.

AJAMI: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Roving mobs in the streets, attacking, assaulting, terrorizing strangers, passersby. And we're not talking about the London riots. It's happening right here in the United States. We'll tell you. We'll show you where, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Imagine this, happening in your community, roving mobs in the street, attacking, assaulting, and terrorizing passersby. Yes, that could describe the London riots. But it also describes what's been happening this summer in Philadelphia. Violence and mayhem caused by groups called "flash mobs."

Is this kind of behavior something to blame on unemployment, on society, or on ourselves, parents, and our teenagers?

The Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter didn't mince his words when he addressed his city's young people from a church's pulpit this past Sunday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER, PHILADELPHIA, PA: You damage yourself, you damage another person, you damage your peers, and quite honestly, you damage your own race.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: With us now is the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

Chief, appreciate your time tonight. What is happening? You have on, just on July 29th, teens beating up random strangers. Among those arrested an 11-year-old boy. What are these flash mobs about? What is the problem?

COMMISSIONER CHARLES RAMSEY, PHILADELPHIA POLICE: Well, it's kind of complicated in terms of exactly what they are about. But they communicate through social media and through text messaging, and they can show up any given time, any given place, in very, very large numbers.

Unfortunately, there are few that have been singling out people and assaulting them and that's the problem.

KING: And you say using social media. That makes it hard for you to stop. How do you track it? RAMSEY: Well, we do the best we can to try to track it. Fortunately, we have had parents and even some young people call us and tell us when these things are about to develop. But we don't always get that message. That's what happened a couple of weeks ago. We were unaware that these mobs were going to form.

KING: If you listen to the mayor there on the pulpit -- a pretty strong message, a stern message to African-American youth. Is this a problem just in the African-American community or widespread?

RAMSEY: Well, so far, it's been limited to the African-American community as far as the mobs themselves go. But they have been singling out people in the inner city district. One of the things that the mayor did do was to impose a curfew for people 17 and under.

And hopefully, that will help us.

KING: Isn't it helping you, (a), and, (b), how long can you sustain something like that at a time when we know city and local budgets are under a lot of strain right now, having a curfew means having a higher police presence?

RAMSEY: Well, it does mean having a higher police presence. We're going to have an awful lot of cops down in center city and other parts of our city as well.

But we have to do what we have to do. We simply cannot allow this to continue.

So whatever the cost is, we just have to bear it and do what we need to do in order to keep the public safe.

KING: And the question people ask is: why is this happening? And some people point to the fact that we have the 39 percent unemployment rate among those age 16 to 19 in the city of Philadelphia. Is this to blame on a bad economy?

RAMSEY: I don't really think so. These are just ignorant kids that are out there doing things they have absolutely no business doing. Unemployment, education, these are not excuses to just go out and randomly target people and beat them up. There's just absolutely no excuse for it, it's stupid, it's ignorant, and I can't find any other words to describe it.

KING: As we've watched it, you used pretty tough words there and they are necessary words, I think, Chief. I agree with you.

I want you to listen with the mayor again and I want to see if you see a parallel. First, the mayor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NUTTER: We as a government cannot raise people's children. You want to have children. You have to take care of them. We can help you. We provide services, support, all kinds of stuff. But we are not going to tolerate this kind of senseless, stupid, ignorant, violent acts, even episodically as they may occur on the streets of our city.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's the mayor of Philadelphia speaking there. Across the Atlantic, you've seen rioting in London in recent days, a lot of beating, senseless, tragic beatings, like you describe in your city.

Listen here to the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I said before that there is a major problem in our society with children growing up, not knowing the difference between right and wrong. This is not about poverty. It's about culture.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You see a parallel, sir?

RAMSEY: Well, I mean, in terms of the language that is being used, the fact that we've got young people, many young people that seem to have no real guidance, no real direction, I don't agree they don't know right from wrong. They do know write from wrong. They just don't care. And that's the problem.

KING: Police Chief Charles Ramsey of the city of Philadelphia, sir, we appreciate your time tonight.

RAMSEY: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

That's all the time we have tonight. Hope to see you back here tomorrow.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.