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JOHN KING, USA

Growing Disapproval; Political Strength; Gadhafi on the Run

Aired September 6, 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. It is testing time in American politics. One leading Republican presidential contender, the Texas Governor Rick Perry, is about to make his debate debut and is also drawing a national political spotlight as his state deals with punishing wildfires.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At this point we're just urging people to avoid any outdoor activity which could conceivably start a fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Another top-tier GOP contender, the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took issue today with the Democratic incumbent as he outlined a 59-point plan to spur job creation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What he's doing is taking quarters and stuffing them into the pay phone and thinking -- can't figure out why it's not working. It's not connected anymore, Mr. President. All right, your pay phone strategy does not work in a Smartphone world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And that incumbent, Governor Romney speaks of, President Obama, well he is at a new low point in his political standing as the president prepares to unveil his own jobs program this week, Thursday night, three stunning new numbers to set the table tonight. Six in 10 Americans disapprove of how the president is handling the economy. That's a new low.

Nearly eight in 10 -- this is pessimistic -- nearly eight in 10 say the economy will either get worse or stay in the same deep funk in the year leading up to the 2012 presidential vote, and more voters now say they plan to vote Republican for president than vote Democratic. Add it all up, and the veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the first time tonight says you can no longer consider the president as favored to win re-election.

Peter Hart is with us tonight along with CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger and in New Orleans CNN contributor Mary Matalin whose deep political resume includes the presidential victories of both George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush. Peter to you first -- the president is no longer favored to win re-election.

I looked at your new poll, the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll. It is a collection. If you are a Democrat and the president of the United States a collection of very bleak numbers.

PETER HART, CHAIRMAN, HART RESEARCH: Bad news, a lot of bad news. But let's understand one thing. It's not quite the same thing as saying you're going to lose. He's no longer the favored. And I would have said that George W. Bush was not the favored in 2003, so the president's got a lot of work to do. But the other thing that's fascinating about this poll is that on a personal basis they still like the president, so for all the bad things that are happening, they like him.

And secondly they make the distinction between how he's handling the economy and how he's handling foreign policy. Fifty percent give him a positive rating on foreign policy. So, does he have a lot of problems? You bet he does, but the other side of it is they give him some good news on foreign policy.

KING: Mary Matalin, I'm going to guess that you get a little bit of sense of deja vu when you hear numbers like this and you hear Peter Hart say they still like him and they give him high marks on foreign policy. I mentioned your resume includes the victory of George H.W. Bush. It also includes George H.W. Bush when he lost in 1992.

When people as they do now looked out at the economy and did not feel at all optimistic and indeed felt quite pessimistic, let's look at some of these numbers from the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll. Is the country headed in the right direction? Nineteen percent say yes. Seventy-three percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

Do you approve of the job Obama is doing as president? Forty- four percent say yes. A majority, 51 percent, say no. That's a low for the president. And do you approve, Peter just mentioned this, the job the president is doing handling the economy. Thirty-seven percent approve, 59 percent disapprove.

Mary Matalin, having gone through this with George H.W. Bush, he had two candidates to deal with, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. I'm going to ask you to put your partisan hat aside.

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Right.

KING: Give the president some advice. What lessons did you learn going through an environment like this?

MATALIN: Well, this is going to sound partisan, but I don't mean it. There is -- I guess the other silver lining for him, he has personal popularity which continues. I wouldn't put foreign policy up there. That's not the issue at this time. And they don't like the other side either, so it's they hate everybody, so there's still a contest there, but this is always -- re-elections are always a referendum on the incumbent. He's not going to be able to escape that and until there's -- in the case of the '92 race that you referenced, John, the perception was reality. That the economy was in bad shape, it was actually growing at 5.5 percent. Now reality is reality. The job situation is -- continues to deteriorate, and the most telling thing I think in Peter's poll there is not the static numbers today, not where people are today, which is low but consistent with where this president has been.

It's that looking forward, because elections are about the future, and you say how do you ask these respondents. How do you -- they don't see any end in sight. They think a year from now some 80 percent -- close to 80 percent think the economy's not going to get better. That's a bad turning point. That's a Katrina turning point.

Some have been calling it -- it was in our case when Buchanan primaried us in New Hampshire and then Perot got in. It's just -- it's this attitudal (ph) thing that voters are starting to think that there is no forward way for this president. And I don't say that as a partisan. I say it as somebody who has lived through it a couple of times.

KING: Mary makes an important point I think a key distinction, at this moment --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

KING: -- some people say if these numbers go don't, won't some Democrat feel the urge, oh, why not, let's primary him. No evidence of that.

BORGER: No.

KING: No evidence of that on the horizon --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: You know and the other -- so that's good for Barack Obama if you're looking for the silver lining, he's not getting primaried. But the other thing is that when you do the match-ups against specific candidates, it's close. When you do -- you know when you do it against a generic Republican, Obama doesn't do so well.

But the question is, OK, who is Obama going to be standing there with debating a year from now? So, we don't know yet, and so far, the American public hasn't seen anybody it absolutely is in love with to go up against Barack Obama.

KING: And so, Peter, to Mary's point about the funk people are in, they have a pessimistic long-term view, which is going to make them less likely to support an incumbent unless they think that incumbent is turning things around. I want you to listen to the president.

This is the president yesterday in Detroit. It is Labor Day. He's trying to give some optimism, some hope that if you trust him and support his policies the economy will get better. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, we've got a lot more work to do to recover fully from this recession. But I'm not satisfied just to get back to where we were before the recession. We've got to fully restore the middle-class in America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, I understand from a political standpoint, a branding standpoint, an optimism standpoint the president needs to do that. But here's my question to you -- as a president, the candidate who ran as a transformational, aspirational, said Washington would change, set these high hopes that things would be so different, is there a risk in setting such a high hope again, I want to make -- get back not just to where we were before the recession, but fully restore the middle- class. If the economy created 208,000 jobs a month, it was flat, created no jobs last month. If it created 208,000 jobs a month, it would take 12 years to get back to where we were at the beginning of the recession.

HART: OK. What it comes down to is he has to persuade the American public we've come so far across this lake, you have a choice. You can go back to the shore that you have seen before or we've done the hard part and we should move ahead. That's what his challenge is as much as anything else. The other thing I'd like to say is when you look at that speech on Thursday night, he's on trial, but all the people in the Congress are equally on trial. You have to understand, 54 percent of the American public would vote out every single member of Congress if there were a lever on their ballot, and that tells you, they, too, have something to prove Thursday night.

BORGER: So that's another silver lining for Barack Obama --

KING: Everybody stay put. We'll pick up on the point. We'll pick up on the point, the burden on the Republicans in Congress and the burden on the Republicans running for office.

Still ahead here, Libyan Army vehicles cross the border into Niger carrying Gadhafi regime leaders the United States wants arrested and detained.

And next, just three weeks after joining the Republican presidential field, Rick Perry leads the GOP pack, but three debates over the next three weeks will test his staying power.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Rick Perry has few complaints about his first three weeks as a Republican presidential candidate, but the next three weeks will tell us a lot more about the Texas governor's staying power. There are three debates in that stretch including a CNN event Monday night in Florida and as he prepares for that new scrutiny, the governor's handling of the devastating wildfires offers a glimpse at his leadership style. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PERRY: When you've got people hurting, when you've got lives in danger in particular, I really don't care who the asset belongs to. If it's sitting on some yard somewhere and not helping be part of the solution, that's a problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, we know Governor Perry enters this critical stretch in a strong position nationally. The new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows 38 percent of Republicans support Perry, 23 percent support former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, nine percent support the Congressman Ron Paul and eight percent Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. And we know he's about to get some deep pocketed help.

CNN confirms that a so-called super political action committee run by a former top Perry political aide is planning to spend -- get this -- more than $50 million, $50 million, to support his candidacy. So should we consider Perry the new GOP front-runner?

Still with us Republican strategist Mary Matalin, Democratic pollster Peter Hart and CNN's Gloria Borger -- Mary to you first -- you run Republican campaigns for a living. Heading into this next stretch, what is your biggest question, the biggest challenge for Governor Perry to prove that after this initial boomlet, he has staying power?

MATALIN: He's just -- well he is -- he's a very solid front- runner. Peter's poll show that he's got the highest front-runner number of any previous front-runner and I think also Peter's poll shows that amongst the most intense activists, the so-called self- identified Tea Party activists, he's 2-1, holds a 2-1 lead and all this happened in three weeks. But he has to show that he can withstand the front-runner assault.

The comparable period in the last cycle Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were the front-runners, so you have to stand up to having the target on your back, which I think he -- his political skills as are evidenced in his longest-serving governor in Texas are considerable and mis-underestimated as we adopted Texans say, so he'll get through these debates. And I think it's got down to the two-man races as Ed Rollins was saying last night on CNN.

KING: To continue the metaphor, I guess the question is what is his strategery heading into these three debates? Peter Hart, there are three coming up. September 7th, that's tomorrow night, NBC/Politico. CNN has a Tea Party Express debate Monday night, September 12th down in Tampa, Florida and then September 22nd the month of debates ends with a FOX News/Google/Florida Republican Party debate.

As a Democrat you're looking at these numbers about Rick Perry. He eclipses Mitt Romney. National polls can be deceptive. You got to win Iowa. You got to go to New Hampshire and then we go state by state, but what was your sense when you see how in three weeks he has changed dynamic of the race? What are his strengths and what are the question marks?

HART: Well I think the real question mark is it doesn't mean anything. I mean Mary is right, great number, 39 percent. But the reverse is we had Donald Trump as the leader for one period of time, and then we had Sarah Palin, and then we go to Michele Bachmann. It's the flavor of the month. He has to be able to prove that he can withstand scrutiny.

His real problem is going to be showing that he has a grasp that is beyond Texas and something that can appeal to a broader group of people. He -- yes, go ahead, Gloria.

BORGER: People judge candidates by how they do against the people they're standing next to on these debate podiums and I think we're going to take a look at Rick Perry and we're going to see how he does standing next to Mitt Romney or standing next to Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul. And they are more practiced on the national stage than he is, and you're just going to have to get a sense of how he performs, right? I mean --

HART: It's too early.

KING: And, Mary, how much of these super PACs rewritten how presidential campaigns play out. This $55 million, and of course the Perry campaign says we have nothing to do with these guys. We dong know what they're doing. They all happen of course to be top former Perry political aides, so maybe they are being careful and legally not coordinating. But what a huge help and he's not the only one. I should make clear President Obama has one of these. Governor Romney has one of these. We live in a new world.

MATALIN: Yes. And as you know, John, there are two -- Peter is so right. These numbers don't count -- there are two things that do matter. Follow the money, where these money guys were sitting on their stash, and they have come pretty quickly to the game for Rick Perry. The other thing that really counts is in South Carolina before he had to rush back to deal with the fires in Texas, he did attend a town hall for Tim Scott, a very influential new young congressman in South Carolina.

And I'm told he was beloved by those town hall people and he got the endorsement of a South Carolina -- another South Carolina Republican. These are -- these -- congressmen have been sitting on the sidelines and the moneyed people have been sitting on the sidelines and they're coming over for Perry and that is a significant demonstration of his strength, far more so than these numbers.

KING: And so does this matter? Ron Paul is the Texas congressman. He doesn't like anyone in the Republican establishment. He clearly doesn't have a good relationship with his governor, so he has put up a video reminding Republicans that back in the day this is where I first met Rick Perry. He supported this guy, named Al Gore.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE, POLITICAL AD: Rick Perry helped lead Al Gore's campaign to undo the Reagan revolution, fighting to elect Al Gore president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's 1988 I believe it was. Rick Perry was a Democrat back then --

BORGER: (INAUDIBLE) Ronald Reagan.

KING: A lot of southern Republicans -- a lot of southern Republicans -- now Republicans were Democrats back in those days. Does that matter?

BORGER: I think it depends on what part of the Republican electorate you're talking to. I think for lots of Republicans, yes, they may say, you know what, you can't trust what he says. He supported Al Gore. Lots of Republicans are going to say you know it doesn't matter. What we want is a candidate who is the most electable and if that means he can appeal to independent voters and maybe some Democrats, we'll take him.

KING: So Peter Hart, when you look at the strength and weaknesses in the numbers, if you're President Obama do you worry more about Rick Perry or Governor Romney or Governor Huntsman maybe as a general election candidate?

HART: I think you worry most about yourself. I mean he has to correct his problems and for Rick Perry I would tell you that he's got the Tea Party behind him. We've looked at those numbers, but he's actually ahead of Romney with non-Tea Party people, so he's creating a lot of problems for Romney, and I think the early polls show the problems with Romney, and that is he's thin and everybody's looking for somebody else.

KING: So an interesting month, it's only September, 2011, but a very interesting month of presidential politics. Gloria, Peter and Mary, thanks for your help.

Still ahead here, we look at the key elements of the new jobs plan unveiled today by the GOP candidate Peter just mentioned, Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: A clamp-down on the cheaters and China is the worst example of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Also look at this. We'll take you -- wow -- to the front lines of the nasty Texas wildfires.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. If you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now.

A senior Pentagon official says the Obama administration is considering an option to keep only 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq next year. Forty thousand are stationed there now.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham say they're deeply troubled by the prospect of such a deep drawdown, pointing out it's dramatically lower than what military leaders say is needed to safeguard their hard-won gains in Iraq.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer Dick Cheney says he has no regrets about his time as vice president and Mr. Cheney defends the big deficits run up by the Bush administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: But I think with respect to the wars and the war on terror and the threat that we inherited, that we had to face and that we had to deal with, we didn't have any choice but to spend a lot of money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Officials in the African country of Niger say two Libyan convoys passed through their country this week fueling speculation that the ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and members of his family may be on the run. Right now the Reuters News Agency quotes a Libyan official who is coordinating the manhunt saying Gadhafi was last tracked in southern Libya heading toward the borders with Niger and Chad.

CNN's senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman is with us live from Tripoli tonight. Ben, we've heard reports like this before, any sense of whether this one is true?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: None whatsoever, John. We have to keep in mind that that area, south -- in southern Libya is the Sahara Desert. It's a vast area and it's very difficult, especially for the rebels themselves, to really know where anybody is down there. That area at the moment still seems to be in some form or another under the control of Gadhafi loyalists.

So, I think we need to approach these reports with real skepticism. Let's also keep in mind that in the past rebel officials have put out reports, for instance, that Saif al Islam and Gadhafi had been captured. It turned out not to be true. It may well be part of a psychological effort to undermine those remaining areas of the country that remain loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

Outside of Bani Walid we saw that they are trying to work their way, the rebels are trying to convince the local inhabitants to trust them to allow them to go in. There are battles outside the town of Sirte in the -- along the coast, the hometown of Moammar Gadhafi. So there is sort of an attempt to undermine the resolve of those parts of the country that until now have resisted the rebels' advances -- John. KING: And Ben, there were some hopes there might be a negotiated settlement between the rebels and what's left of the regime forces and loyalists, but you were part of covering those talks today, and things didn't go as planned, right?

WEDEMAN: They certainly did not. In fact, NTC officials tell us that they were up all night last night with the elders from Bani Walid trying to give them these assurances that there would be no retribution, no revenge killings, no looting, no plundering if their forces went into that town, and they seemed confident earlier in the day that they had made progress, that these elders were seriously considering these pledges.

However, later in the day, when the elders after the talks went back to the outskirts of Bani Walid, they came under fire from loyalists. And the latest is that negotiations have come to a screeching halt. Next step could be a military move into Bani Walid -- John.

KING: Ben Wedeman, reporting tonight from Tripoli, Ben, thank you.

The Texas wildfires now have killed four people and burned at least 700 homes. We'll take you to the fire lines next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got some other dozers working over there --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Fast-moving wildfire near Austin, Texas, now has destroyed some 700 homes. This afternoon, authorities announced it also claimed at least two lives, raising the state's overall death toll to four.

CNN's David Mattingly is near the front lines.

And, David, you are near the biggest fire raging near Austin. Give us the latest on what you're seeing right there at the scene.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the fire is absolutely massive, burning over 30,000 acres, almost 600 homes by this single fire alone have been destroyed.

What we've been seeing is a massive amount of resources being deployed here. We've been watching helicopters dropping water and fire retardant from the air. Crews have been going in on the ground, trying to stay in front of the flames, going to properties to make sure they're secured, to haul away firewood, anything else that might be fueling this fire in its path.

They're doing everything they possibly can to slow it down and hopefully, if they're able to throw enough resources at it eventually to get this thing contained. But at the moment, it is massive. It is still burning out of control, and they are still working very hard just to keep the hot spots from spawning more fires across this very dry countryside.

KING: Out of control there. You were in another part of the state earlier where there's been devastation but people beginning to be allowed back into their homes. Tell us about that?

MATTINGLY: This was one neighborhood northwest of Austin, Texas. They let some of the residents back in today, a fire just roared through there, this was a unique place, sort of an upscale neighborhood. On both sides of it, a lot of green space, some natural areas and with this dry climate that they have here, that was just tinder for that wildfire to blow right through their neighborhood.

So, what they found when they went back and there were a couple of dozen homes had been completely incinerated, we went with one family as they went back to their house, and they lost everything. And before they went out, they had only about 15 minutes to gather whatever they could and get out of there. Needless to say, they didn't get very much. They left behind all their personal papers, all their family photographs, and this is just one story of loss out of the hundreds that have happened with this fire.

And, again, these fires are popping up. They're trying to stay in front of them as best they can, but the resources here are stretched so incredibly thin. It's amazing they've been able to throw equipment and people at every fire now that's been popping up, John.

KING: Heartbreaking, heartbreaking, to see the shell, the skeleton of that house.

David Mattingly on the front lines for us -- David, thank you.

And will the Texas firefighters continue to get a break from the weather or will conditions make the challenge greater for that?

Let's check in with meteorologist Chad Myers. He's in the CNN weather center -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: A break today and a break tomorrow. But then the winds, John, blow back from the east back toward Austin. That will take this choking fire, this is from loop 360, about six miles west of downtown Austin, just to give you the scope, the ground shots I don't believe give you the scope of the smoke and this fire.

Six miles to the sea, 30 miles farther to the fire and this is what the smoke looks like from Austin. That smoke goes all the way down to Corpus Christi, and that smoke will make a beautiful sunset tonight unfortunately at the cost of many people.

What caused it? Well, in fact it was Lee. Lee kind of ran up this way. Tropical storm Lee, not a big deal, make a weather-maker here, a couple of tornadoes into parts of Georgia. But the wind came this direction, from the north 35 miles per hour without a drop of rain over Texas.

That was the issue - no rain whatsoever and it's not coming. The rain is to the Northeast. There's even a potential for some tornadoes tonight in parts of Virginia and North Carolina, that's all from Lee.

Now, what else is going on? Well, here you go. We still have Katia. We have something else developing in the Gulf of Mexico, and a storm you can't even see off the coast here. That's about to be Maria. We've already been to "K" and then to "L" and then this will be "M."

The Maria storm, it's tropical depression 14. It's very impressive. It is forecast to be a category 1 hurricane very close to Puerto Rico on Sunday.

Hurricane season is still in full swing, John.

KING: Chad Myers for us tonight in the weather center. Chad, thank you.

And coming up here, well, you've got mail, the old-fashioned kind, but for how much longer? Can the U.S. Postal Service be saved?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: "ANDERSON COOPER 360" coming up at the top of the hour. Anderson is here now with a preview.

Hi there.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Hey, a controversial case we're covering in "Crime and Punishment" on "360." A gay teenage killed in a California classroom shot by another student.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALEXIS CHAVEZ, VICTIM'S FRIEND: They just mocked him and every time he came around, they ran and painful things -- they said painful things about him.

REPORTER: More than two years ago in February, 2008, the bullying suddenly stopped, not because Larry was finally accepted, but because he was dead, murdered, police say, by a fellow student.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: The case is much more complex than some thought two years ago. The shooter was charged with first-degree murder and hate crimes but the jury couldn't come to a verdict. Recently, there was a mistrial.

The question tonight is: will they retry the accused killer in the Lawrence King murder? We'll talk to the teacher who was in the classroom when Larry King was shot.

John, we'll also go to the front lines of the firestorms in Texas.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

COOPER: Video shows you just how quickly with the wind this monster fire is moving. A live report from the fire lines ahead.

Those stories plus the latest from the race to the presidency and tonight's "Ridiculist" at the top of the hour -- John.

KING: Anderson, we'll see you in just a few minutes. Thank you.

A dire forecast today about the future of the United States Postal Service. It's more than $9 billion in the red and is now proposing cutting Saturday mail delivery and closing more than 3,000 local post offices.

Outside a hearing on Capitol Hill today, Democratic Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware told CNN things could get even worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. THOMAS CARPER (D), DELAWARE: If we do nothing by the end of this year, the Postal Service could default. We do nothing by this time next year, the Postal Service could be gone as we know it.

(END VIDEO CLI)

KING: Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was also at today's hearing on the future of the Postal Service.

You just heard your colleague there, Senator, saying by this time next year, the Postal Service as we know it could be gone.

What needs to be done? And does what need to be done include some form of taxpayer-assisted, taxpayer bailout?

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: No.

Look, the business model that the Post Office is run on is failed, because technology has outstripped first-class mail. And I've been working on this subject for 12 years. And we continue to have estimates that are erroneous. The fact is, is the vast majority of first class mails are going to go away and we need to have a business model that adjusts for that.

Senator Carper is right, if we don't do anything, if we don't change the flexibility that the management needs at the Post Office, if we don't let them run it to meet what the market says is out there in terms of delivering goods to homes, then they're not going to be able to. There's two or three critical problems that haven't been addressed by Congress that are going to have to be addressed if you want to continue to have a Postal Service that has a monopoly mandate and delivered high quality with a great bunch of people.

KING: There will be some people who say get the government out of this, let the private sector take care of this. Is that the approach?

COBURN: Well, the private sector won't take care of actually delivering to every address in the country. And that's the problem, is you have to give them the monopoly and they have the capability to do it. But we -- the Congress, through our laws, had hamstrung the Postal Service to where they can't change to meet their business model and that's what has to happen.

You know, just a couple of things. One is, is when they negotiate a contract with the labor unions, they can't consider their financial -- or fiscal impact on the health of the Post Office. Well, nobody's ever going to be successful if none of the -- if any of the labor contracts don't consider the financial health of the organization for which you're going to pay them to work. So, that's number one.

Number two is you got to give them the flexibility to be able to offer and negotiate benefits that are realistic and competitive in the world. The benefit cost per year per postal employee and salary is about $84,000. That's pretty significant across the country. So, what we need to do is have the real demands for the labor and the real price that the market can afford meet on that and let it really be negotiated rather than the Congress stepping in the way and say here's the parameters, not real economic parameters under which you can negotiate.

I think that they're realizing that they have big problems. And I think we've got a good postmaster general that wants to address those, but, you know, there's all sorts of people who have vested interests in the status quo. Like Saturday delivery or Post Office or some places.

You know, in my hometown, we have two post offices in drugstores. It's working well. We don't have to have all the post offices that we have.

KING: And --

COBURN: Go ahead.

KING: Forgive me. So, you agree with the postmaster general that when he says five-day delivery and close somewhere in the ballpark of 3,700 post offices, and shed about 120,000 jobs. Is that a good start from your perspective?

COBURN: Well, I think that's one of the starts. The other thing I would do is giving the capability to truly negotiate these labor contracts based on the financial health of the Post Office is.

Do you know any other organization that negotiates labor contracts and not look at their balance sheet or their income statement? I mean, that's ridiculous. And that's not to say that postal employees shouldn't be paid what they are and more. But the fact is give them the freedom to run it.

So, we're going to have to -- otherwise, what you're going to have is a subsidized Postal Service. We'll be right back where we were and we're going to -- as taxpayers, you're not going to pay it in a stamp. You're going to pay it through additional taxes and we can't afford that, John. We have so many other areas where we're stealing -- robbing Peter to pay Paul right now. We just can't do that again.

So, the Post Office is going to have to stand on its own. We need to give them the flexibility to do that. And with that will come some change in service but not necessarily a diminution in services.

KING: And as you come up with these changes, one of the realities is, as you're doing it at a tough time for federal spending and a very, very tough time in the employment sector. The Post Office happens to be an entity that has a very significant portion of African-American and minority employment. It has a huge percentage of veterans, especially disabled veteran employees.

When you're cutting all these jobs, do you have to do anything special to take care of those populations?

COBURN: Well, first of all, I don't know the numbers. The total is about 225,000 more. They've saved 125,000 through attrition thus far. I'm sure that we can protect those.

You know, this is over a time period, but we need to give them the authority to do whatever they need to do. And I don't have any problem giving preference to those people who have served our country. And, you know, we have a great Postal Service group of employees, but we just have too many of them for the volume of mail that we have.

And realistically, you're either going to subsidize them to not work. You know, another problem the postal service is work rules, getting greater flexibility so you can utilize people more efficiently and effectively.

I mean, we just -- it's just time for common sense. None of it's partisan. None of it's about not taking care of groups and not being attentive to the needs of people. It's the realistic aspect as first of all, the federal government doesn't have any money to subsidize the Post Office anymore. And number two is, we can't run any federal government agency of any type in anything other than a commonsense fashion.

KING: As you know, a lot of people harshly criticize the Postal Service management. You seem to be saying the management, maybe it has some problems. But the bigger problem is the that the Congress and other entities of the government have essentially put mandates on them, told them you must do these things in these ways.

COBURN: Yes. And we've actually hand cuffed them so they can't respond to the changing market. Look, one of the big problems with the Post Office is they way overestimated what the revenues were going to be. This $8.5 billion -- two years ago, they weren't going to lose any money this year because they thought they were going to have first class mail. Every time they've given me an estimate, they were wrong.

If we would quit hand-cuffing them and have management actually be real, be conservative in their estimates, not exaggerating in their estimates, I think we can solve the problem.

KING: Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- sir, appreciate your time tonight.

COBURN: Thank you. Good to be with you.

KING: Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, rolls out his jobs plan two days before President Obama. We'll break down the details, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Breaking political news tonight. Democratic sources who have been in discussions with the White House tell CNN the working number in the president's job plan -- remember, he'll outline that Thursday night -- the working number, we are told, we're is $300 billion in tax cuts.

Now, White House officials won't confirm that, saying that the numbers might change, but our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is told that the $300 billion in tax cuts would have to be offset by $300 billion in the spending cuts. Not an easy task.

To discuss whether any of the talk will help and the new proposal today by the Republican candidate Mitt Romney -- I'm joined by Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, Paul Begala; Greg Ip, the U.S. economics editor for "The Economist"; and CNN contributor Erick Erickson, -in-chief of the conservative blog, redstate.com.

Greg, let's start with the president's proposal. We're beginning to get some details. We know he wants an infrastructure bank. We know he wants some tax cuts -- $300 billion, smaller than what the White House would call the Reinvestment Act, what the Republicans not favorably call the stimulus program.

From your sense, from our reporting and your reporting, how big and bold is the president's plan?

GREG IP, ECONOMICS EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: Well, look, it's big. It is bold? I'm not so sure. I mean, think about it. You need at least $100 to $20 billion just to offset the tightening that's already baking in the cake when the current stimulus expires in December.

So, I assume that some of the $300 billion is continuing, for example, the payroll tax cut, and then there's incremental stimulus perhaps in the form of more infrastructure spending and construction.

The devil is always in the details. How do they pay for this? So, according to your reporting, he's going to offset with $300 billion in spending cuts. Now, you presumably, what you want is the tax cuts now and the spending cuts later. You get the stimulus now when the economy needs it and the fiscal balancing act when, you know, the debt is more of a problem.

KING: So as a Democrat, who's looking (a), to help the unemployed, and (b), to reframe the political debate which is right now not going into the president's favor, $300 billion, too timid? Right number?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think Greg is right. It depends on where it's targeted. If it's targeted to the middle class, then it can do some real good.

Keep in mind, this president in his original stimulus had $235 billion of tax cuts targeted for the middle-class, did a lot of good. The Congressional Budget Office says so, not just liberals like me.

And then in December, he signed a $858 billion tax cuts that people like me attacked, and I still don't like it, because it's way too expensive and a lot of it went to the rich. So, we wound up cutting up the estate tax so that Paris Hilton does not have to pay a tax when she inherits a vast fortune. No offense.

So, it really defends on where he's targeting it. My hope and belief is that this president -- and I know he believes in the middle class -- so, he'll target those tax cuts to the middles, which will actually stimulate the economy and then, you know, rich guys like you will do better off still.

KING: Erick Erickson, what is the expectation among Republicans and conservatives in the sense that do they expect a proposal, a political statement from the president, a proposal that the Republicans have ruled out or do they expect the president to propose at least part of his plan, something that the speaker and the majority leader on the House side who are the critical players here can get along with? I mention that in the context that Speaker Boehner and Leader Cantor did send the president a letter today saying we don't like some of what you are going to do, but maybe we should sit down beforehand and we see if we can have common ground on some of it.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think they will try to make common ground if only because the approval rating of Congress is something like 10 percent right now. They're going to want to show they have some common ground.

By and large, though, I think we're going to see repackaged old ideas. We're not going to see a lot of new ideas. Instead of infrastructure project, we'll see an infrastructure bank. We'll continue seeing the rolling out of the unemployment checks and the president will be put in an interesting position here with this new chair of the Council of Economic Advisers who has written a paper that ongoing unemployment checks to a degree subsidizes unemployment. Well, we'll see that thrown in his face.

The Republicans, of course, will go on with continuing unemployment checks regardless of what the council of economics head says.

But where will they find common ground? I don't know. If it's a lot of more government spending, then government spending spawn to be a tax cut -- I don't know if the Republicans will go along with that.

KING: How important, Paul, is this speech and this plan to the president of the United States in the context of where we are politically? Back in 1992, I was talking to other side earlier tonight, Mary Matalin was here. You were part of the Clinton campaign that ran on the "It's economy, stupid" pledge, and you beat an incumbent president who had an economy that was actually doing better than this one.

BEGALA: Right.

KING: And still, George H.W. Bush had I think 5 percent growth, things were starting to get better, but people didn't feel it. How important when you see the president's poll numbers when it comes to handling of the economy, the funk that people are in the pessimism about the future of the economy, how big is this?

BEGALA: Enormously important for a couple of reasons. First, a lot -- as Greg referred to earlier -- is baked in the cake. And a lot of the contractionary stuff that he went along with that the Republicans want, a lot of spending cuts that actually hurt the economy.

And second, it takes a while for this stuff to work through politically as well. But most importantly, if he is seen as trying -- this is why the speech is important. He -- the fact that he is giving it almost means that he wins it, because he asked the Congress for the time. He is speaking to the country about jobs.

And President Bush Sr. was a great man and somebody I do actually admire. But part of the political problem is that he was not seen as passionately committed to the economy the way he was to liberating Kuwait and the war and I don't want to relitigate that election, I think he's a fine man.

But I don't think President Obama is going to be accused of ignoring the jobs issues. I think he's going to be a full force and full focus on it.

KING: And the Republicans are also focusing increasingly on the jobs issue and three debates coming up. Governor Romney presented his plan today, 59 points. He does at a time when Governor Perry of Texas has eclipsed him in the Republican race for president. Let's look at some of the details of the Romney plan, the former Massachusetts governor.

He would lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. He says he would cut non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent. He says this would create more than 11 million jobs, and it was interesting, he was pretty tough, pretty tough in saying I'm going to stand up to China. China is the biggest unfair player in the trade market right now. If they don't behave, I will slap sanctions on them.

Greg, is it a new plan from Romney? Is it -- we ask the bold -- will the president be bold? Do you see new boldness from the Republicans who are repackaging of ideas we heard in the Bush administration or previous Republicans?

IP: I think it's actually, it's surprisingly moderate conservative plan. There are a lot of things in here that Obama himself could agree with in general type, if not actually to degree.

Obama has already said he'd like to reform the corporate tax system, bring the top rate down, perhaps knock it down to 25 percent. On regulation, Romney has this interesting proposal. Let's make sure that every time you pass a new rule, you repeal an old one that costs just as much. Well, on Friday, of course, you saw the president with a very big decision to delay the ozone standard which I think was s him in some sense capitulating to the narrative to the Republicans that his regulations are hurting business.

I think if there is one glaring omission from the Romney plan, it's what do you do about the lack of demand now? Which is the main reason companies aren't hiring or investing.

KING: And so, Erick Erickson, how does this impact the Republican race? Governor Romney focused most of his attention on President Obama, the incumbent Democrat. But as you know, Governor Romney has been eclipsed in recent days, the last couple of weeks, by Governor Perry of Texas.

Governor Perry said this about the Romney plan: "As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney failed to create a pro-jobs environment and failed to institute many of the reforms he now claims to support."

The Republican rivals like to say when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, Massachusetts ran 47th I believe among the states in job creation. But does this increase the pressure on Governor Perry to have a detailed economic plan of his own and soon?

ERICKSON: Yes, I think it does. I'm not sure how soon he'll need to roll it out but within the next month for sure. The interesting thing to me reading the Romney plan was that it definitely, there's more of a political angle here I think than a policy angle. He wants to be the centrist moderately conservative candidate who doesn't spook the intellectual right in Washington, D.C., who doesn't spook independents who comes a across to the media as not the crazy right winger that the mad cowboy disease as Robert Castellanos has said about Rick Perry.

He wants to be seen as the reasonable, sensible conservative, and his plan I think was positive in that way. And also contrasting Jon Huntsman who, I'm not a fan of his, probably has set the bar high for an economics plan, ironically is based largely on what he did in Utah as opposed to Mitt Romney's plan which really isn't based on anything he did in Massachusetts.

KING: I want to close by shifting subjects. I have watched candidates for president. I've been at this for 25 years, say I'm the person that America needs to help the economy. I'm the person America needs because of our security challenges.

Never have I heard a prospective candidate for president say, well, I don't really want to run, but if things get really desperate, listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think if I would have run I would have a chance to win the presidency. A chance. Nobody ever knows. But I would have a hard time getting nominated.

I'm a realist and I understand how the primary system works. So, I would like to see if there is somebody who emerges that I think would be a strong candidate in the Republican Party for president, if somebody does emerge that I believe can win, then I would probably support that person. And if I think that we are truly desperate, then I may run.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Truly desperate, vote for Giuliani. I'm having a hard time with the bumper sticker, but have you heard that?

BEGALA: No. Well, it's kind of interesting, it looks he's sort of -- he wants it, but I thought it was a very realistic assessment frankly. I mean, he was a pro-choice mayor of the city of New York. He was pro-gun control. These things can -- I defer to Erick who knows his party better than I do, but I don't think a guy with Giuliani's liberal position on the social issues could be nominated.

KING: Erick, are you truly desperate?

ERICKSON: You know, is it Rudy or Judy who wants to be in the White House? I'm not sure in all those things would come back again. It would be too -- it's not going to happen. I think he'll just a little jealous of Sarah Palin taking so much spotlight this weekend.

KING: Erick, Paul, Greg, I'm going to be smart to leave you out of the Rudy Giuliani. I'm not sure what he's up there to there. But we'll bring you back in again on the economy. Gentlemen, have a great night.

We'll see you here tomorrow tonight. But that's all for us for tonight.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.