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JOHN KING, USA

Violence in Syria; Jobs in America; President's Approval Rating

Aired September 16, 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 Perry- Romney brawl at the top of the Republican presidential pack escalates and gets personal. Just hours after a Romney e-mail notes one in five Iowans gets Social Security and then quotes Governor Perry calling the program a failure the Texas governor takes issue.

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GOV. RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let's not scare seniors and tell them that this program is going to go away, mean, old, thoughtless, heartless people are going to take the program away. That's -- that is political cowardice at its greatest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: President Obama's top strategist takes sharp aim too, suggesting people like me are reading way too much into a torrent of recent bad poll numbers for the president. David Axelrod says the president enters the re-election campaign in strong shape.

But we begin tonight with the escalating crisis in Syria and a glaring example, I should say examples, of how brutal dictatorships just flat out lie. Don't believe me. Let your eyes and your ears do the judging. And we must warn you, some of the images you're about to see are quite graphic. For example, remember this? An unarmed man surrounded by troops and executed.

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KING: Listen to Syria's ambassador to the United States explain what's happening. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: What I am saying is very clear. The government of Syria does not approve of this and we -- everyone who has -- who has wrongfully committed a crime will be held accountable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But the video evidence coming out of Syria almost daily for six months now suggests otherwise. More troubling images, these of a 13-year-old boy named Hamza (ph). His beaten and burned body dumped back at his parents' home. This is back in May. In what human rights activists called an act of regime intimidation. Now these images from August in Houma, a shirtless man -- shirtless men kneeling and military men kicking and demeaning them.

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KING: To listen to Ambassador Moustapha, well, the ambassador says these pictures lie. So, he says, do the human rights activists who count more than 500 dead during the bloody crackdown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOUSTAPHA: These are blatant lies. This is the problem we are facing today in Syria, a massive campaign of disinformation and lies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The ambassador spoke earlier today to CNN's Hala Gorani. Hala is with us tonight along with the former undersecretary of state, Nicholas Burns. Let me start with you. You're sitting across from the ambassador. He has to do his job. His job is to represent, and I would make the case to lie for his boss, President Assad. But lying, spinning, fabricating, that's a parallel universe.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Defending the regime and repeating the narrative we've heard from the beginning from this regime, John, which is that peaceful demonstrators are not being killed by security forces as video evidence seems to indicate as activists have told me when I was in Syria in June when I spoke with activists and demonstrators in secret because they were too afraid to show their faces or come meet me directly and in person. This is what the ambassador is doing. He's continuing to repeat this narrative over and over again, that these are armed terrorist gangs that have materialized all of a sudden and they are the agents of foreign powers inside of Syria and they have one objective and that is to destabilize the regime.

KING: So Nick Burns, if you're a top official at the State Department, as you were, if you're an ambassador, as you were, how do you deal with that? When you're sitting across the table from somebody who -- to call it fiction is to do them a favor.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: That was one extraordinary interview. And he is just not credible. What he is saying is contradicted by the personal testimony of hundreds of Syrians who have come forward to say that their families have been attacked. By all the foreign embassies including the United States Embassy and our ambassador, Robert Ford, who've testified to this violence. And even by Ahmadinejad. Last week Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cautioned the Syrian president -- of course Ahmadinejad is a human rights violator -- about violence against his own people. So this ambassador is entirely un-credible and he's just lying about what's happening in his country.

KING: Go ahead.

GORANI: What I find interesting that I asked him are you still having ongoing conversations with any officials on any level and he told me yes, with the State Department. He wouldn't tell me with whom. And he would not tell me about what. Even broad topics of discussion he did not want to divulge. So there are still conversations going on and he said those -- that discussion -- that conversation never, never -- was never interrupted.

KING: And the question is what will the world do about this and will the Security Council say step up and go beyond saying hey stop, this is bad, to doing something? The United Nations General Assembly meets next week in New York. Listen here to the secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, who seems to think maybe, maybe, there's a consensus growing to get a little tougher.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BAN KI-MOON, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: When he has not keeping his promises, enough is enough. Then international community should really take some coherent measures and speak in one voice.

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KING: Nick Burns, what can the international community do? Coherent, the secretary-general says. How about tough? What can they do?

BURNS: You know, John, it's a very different situation than Libya. There isn't going to be an Arab League invitation for NATO to go into Syria or a U.N. Security Council sanction of the use of military force. If we can get Russia and China to be more serious about sanctions that might be something that the Syrians might listen to. But also the Arab League has to speak with a unified voice and other Arab states have to come out and condemn what's happening. You hear it from Turkey. You hear it from the U.S., but that's not enough. It has to come from the Arab world itself.

KING: And do the Arab nations believe -- I want to play a little bit more of this extraordinary interview I had with Ambassador Moustapha. Ambassador Moustapha makes the case that essentially that we're nuts, that we're making this up, that we're believing these liars as he calls them, and that Syria actually in recent months has implemented a whole host of political reforms. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOUSTAPHA: Let me repeat this. And I will continue repeating this. Still the western media reaches a tipping point that it starts understanding this. We believe that their demands are legitimate, and we are addressing their demands in a comprehensive way. Here is my challenge to those guys who are criticizing us. Syria is implementing right now as we speak unprecedented political reforms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I don't know what to say to that. Again, the pictures, the accounts, and it's not one, it's not two, it's dozens and dozens and dozens, prove that to be a lie.

GORANI: Well, the reforms are announced. Committees are formed. Legislative texts are discussed. You hear from the president decree number such and such and decree number such and such, but in the end on the ground will it become a multi-party system when the regime in power is a minority sect in the country, when any kind of reform according to many analysts would really mean the destruction of this regime? And I want to say something about what Ambassador Burns said about NATO. You know, Libya essentially, if you look at Libya and Syria, the difference is Libya was doable. And I think Syria is not doable.

KING: Not doable.

GORANI: It's a completely different scenario. There's not the will, and it's -- the military in Syria and security forces are entirely different --

KING: So then -- so then what can happen? Ambassador Moustapha in the interview also said you know the United States has problems overseas and people do things and you know if we have any problems we'll hold people accountable. Ambassador Ford, who has put some pretty brave things on the Web site there and who has also gone to some of these towns and been pretty brave, he essentially said (INAUDIBLE) go away.

I'm -- his language was slightly more diplomatic. Among the things he said is when Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan did commit offenses he said they were imprisoned for their actions. Have any Syrian security members been punished for killing unarmed protesters or torturing prisoners? Beyond this moral back and forth, and Ambassador Ford has been courageous, is there anything he can do or the United States can do unless the U.N. decides finally?

BURNS: Well, John, a lot of people are saying in our country we should bring the ambassador home to express our displeasure. We should keep him there. He's a personal eyewitness to what's happening. He's been testifying honestly, our ambassador, Robert Ford, about what's happening. This may be a slow motion revolution. It may be that right now the protesters aren't strong enough to dislodge this regime, but they're coming out by the thousands.

Every Friday after prayers and the Assad regime can't do anything to placate them because it's not a legitimate regime. And they've had 40 years, President Assad and his father to implement reform as the Syrian ambassador said they want to do. They haven't done it because they run an authoritarian, iron-fist regime. So I think, John, look not for early progress but sustained pressure by the international community and hopefully by the Arab League to dislodge this regime.

KING: And what you also need is sustained resolve from the demonstrators. Some 30 killed today according to reports from human rights activists and others. Is there any sense from your sources when you talk to people inside Syria, in the human rights community, over time this has to wear on them and frighten people, but they seem for months now, for six-plus months now to keep at it, any signs that they're starting to waver?

GORANI: You did see it after the Houma crackdown. You did see that the number of demonstrators dropped in the streets of Houma and Homs. But what you're seeing and I think it's just as important as the thousands and thousands who come out is that week after week they are continuing to come out. In other words, it is not following the model of Iran after the election, for instance, where there was a drop-off. So six months in I don't think the regime was expecting to still have to deal with it.

But importantly about these sanctions, when I did speak with a source inside of Syria, who was outside of the country because calling a direct number can put people's lives in danger, this was somebody from Aleppo who said we are having to lay off tens of people in businesses. We are not able to establish lines of credit outside of Syria. We can't use credit cards. This is an economic disaster looming. And that is what might really change things in the country.

KING: We'll keep our eye on it, fascinating interview. Nick thanks for coming in. Hala and Nick, thank you very much.

BURNS: Thank you.

KING: Still to come here, the president's top political adviser says stop worrying so much about the horrible poll numbers. We'll put David Axelrod's appeal to a reality check. And next, Fareed Zakaria reports on what it will take to get more jobs created and how Washington's debate is more than a little off key.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: More evidence from the government today to reinforce what you already know is a sad, tough reality. The job market is tough, and there's not much signs it's going to get better anytime soon. Let's just take a look here at the rates. If you look here, the gold states, 26 of them, the unemployment rate went up last month, the government says. The green states down, 12 of those, the blue states no change, no change, 12 of those. But in 26 states the unemployment rate went up last month.

The states with the highest unemployment rate -- she will cooperate eventually or maybe she won't. Nevada has the highest rate -- there we go -- California, Michigan, South Carolina and the District of Columbia, not a state obviously. These are the highest unemployment rates across the country. These states, of course, many of them key presidential battlegrounds. Another thing to watch, this one soon will come to a presidential debate near you.

Texas -- the governor of Texas is a candidate for president. His unemployment rate went up last month as well as he travels the country saying he is the best candidate to create jobs. But nationally is the big question. What can be done here in Washington? Is there anything the president has proposed that can help or are the answers maybe not in Washington but out there in corporate America?

Let's get some perspective now from a man who has spent a lot of hours of late exploring the jobs question. His special, "Restoring The American Dream, Getting Back To Work" airs Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. here on CNN. I'm glad our colleague Fareed Zakaria can share some insights with us tonight. First I want to break this down into two parts, the debate here in Washington and the debate out there in what I'll call the real world.

Here in Washington you have the president's job package and the debate about that, then you have the super committee which is dealing with deficit reduction but a lot of the jobs package could end up being rolled into that. Listen to how the House speaker, John Boehner describes this, two, two little pieces of sound from the speaker. First he says this. When you're looking for revenues be careful not to raise taxes.

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REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: Now, tax increases I think are off the table. And I don't think they're a viable option for the joint committee. It's a very simple equation. Tax increases destroy jobs. And the joint committee is a jobs committee.

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KING: Now, he calls it a jobs committee there, Fareed, but then he's further outlining his goals for the committee, and he says this.

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BOEHNER: And when it comes to producing savings to reach the $1.5 trillion target, the joint select committee has really only one option -- spending cuts and entitlement reform.

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KING: Spending cuts and entitlement reform will get you deficit reduction, but do they get you jobs?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN'S FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: This has become the mantra in Washington that the only thing we need to do is to cut government spending. In the short run, just to be clear, this is just mathematical, the more you cut government spending the more you weaken the economy in the short term, right. What does it mean to cut government spending? It means you fire teachers. You fire policemen. You fire firefighters. The government stops spending money on various programs, bureaucracies.

Those people who are now not being employed by the government in some way or the other aren't going to go to their local diners. They aren't going to buy clothes. They aren't going to do all the kind of economic activity that used to stimulate demand. So in the long run perhaps a leaner, meaner government means that we become more competitive as a society, et cetera, although the argument that you know the only way to go here is cutting spending is also somewhat suspect because you've got -- you're taxing at 15 percent of GDP.

You're spending at 23 percent of GDP. That's a big gap. So I worry when I hear what John Boehner is saying that the Republicans have decided they're not going to make any compromises, in which case you're not going to get a deal out of the super committee. If the committee's Republicans stick with what John Boehner is saying, what is most likely to happen is that the ax will fall and you will have a sequestration. You will not have a compromise.

KING: And so that would be an example of this world, my world, Washington, not working or not working as well as it should. Out in the real world you mentioned Jeff Immelt. He's the CEO of General Electric. He also -- the president asked him to head up a jobs commission of his own to try to find ways to make America more competitive, to make America create more jobs. He looks at Washington from the CEO's perch and he has some complaints like everybody, but he sounded a tad optimistic. Let's listen.

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JEFFREY IMMELT, CHAIRMAN & CEO GE: Education in this country is not going to be magically solved by cutting the budget deficit. In fact, it gets tougher. So I believe ultimately in our system. I just think we're in a particularly, you know, tough time right now because we're coming out of the crisis where people are still angry and that's understandable. I kind of get that. But ultimately, there's a sense of teamwork that's very much a part of the American culture. There's a sense of partnership that's very much a part of the American culture that I think is -- will ultimately play out.

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KING: Will ultimately play out. Where is this sense of teamwork and partnership in our politics? Where does he see it? Because I work here every day and I don't.

ZAKARIA: I think it's a hope, it's not a prediction. Look, the thing that he said, though, at the start of that clip, which I think is so important, is he talked about how you can't just cut the education budget and hope that that will create jobs, that it might have the opposite effect. The point is that we have to be practical about this. One of the things I tried to do in that special is say what are practical solutions to creating jobs, let's try to figure out the sensible, smart things the private sector can do, government can do.

You know, for example, when foreigners come here they spend a lot of money. It creates a lot of jobs. Why not have more foreigners come here? We make it so hard for people to come and visit this country as tourists. Every other country's rolling out the red carpet for tourists. So if we approach things that way and say it's partly government's responsibility, partly the private sector, some taxes need to be reduced, others could be raised, rather than get into this kind of theological debate about the meaning of government and you know all tax increases always destroy jobs.

Well, you know, Germany has pretty high taxes and a pretty strong regulatory system. Germany is experiencing the lowest unemployment rate it's had in 20 years. Why? Well, because they invest. You've got to invest in growth. You can't just cut your way to a new generation of economic growth.

KING: Did your reporting solve or answer what I'll call the chicken and egg question here in Washington. What came first, the chicken or the egg, and that is that you have the president and others saying corporate America could sure help. They're sitting on billions of dollars in cash, if they would spend it investing in new factories, investing in new jobs, they sure could help. You talk to some CEOs and they say, well, we want Washington to help first. There's uncertainty in the tax climate, uncertainty in the regulatory environment, Republicans specifically blame the health care bill and the Dodd-Frank financial bill. Where did the CEOs you talked to come down on that question?

ZAKARIA: Well, Jeff Immelt among others came out very clearly on this issue. The reason corporate America is not investing is a lack of demand. In other words, if you had lots of people demanding your products, the fact that Barack Obama wasn't making nice speeches about you wouldn't stop you from building a new factory. Now I think that hits the president too.

The president's jobs plan has a lot of payroll tax cuts and little gimmicks that will supposedly make corporations invest and hire. I don't think they will because ultimately there isn't right now much demand. Consumers are paying down debt. They're not spending money. The one area where it is absolutely clear you could generate lots of jobs is infrastructure, because that is something not dependent on consumer demand.

The government could just go out there. Cheapest interest rates in American history, borrow the money at two percent, build bridges, modernize highways, put in smart grids, do all the things that will pave the way for another generation or two of economic growth. That's the biggest low-hanging fruit we have to create jobs in the economy.

KING: It is the most immediate challenge for the country right now. Fareed Zakaria's special "Restoring The American Dream, Getting Back To Work" Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. right here on CNN -- important reporting, Fareed, thank you.

ZAKARIA: Thanks, John.

KING: And the president's top strategist hits back. He says those who are reading the polls and saying the president is in deep trouble have it wrong and some new violent crime statistics out from the government tonight. Up or down? That's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I owe you an apology. Well, at least that's what David Axelrod thinks. We've spent a lot of time in recent days telling you how the president's poll numbers are down, how anger among voters is way up, and how deep of a funk people are in when it comes to the economy. Add it all up, and I'd say it's a steep hill for the president to win re-election. Not impossible but a steep hill. But his top strategist is pushing back.

In an e-mail to supporters David Axelrod says, "Despite what you hear in elite commentary, the president's support among base voters and in key demographic groups has stayed strong." Well, let's put that to the test, comparing the president's standing a year ago to the president's standing now. And we'll look at some of the key demographic groups as we do. First and foremost, we've talked about this, the president's overall approval rating, a year ago, 50 percent, down now to 43 percent.

What about just among Democrats, 84 percent approval a year ago. Down, not a bunch but down significantly to 78 percent now. African- Americans, one of the president's key constituencies. That one has stayed pretty stable, 89 percent a year ago. Just off a point now. Women, key to the Obama constituency, down eight points. That's important heading into the election cycle, 55 percent a year ago, 47 percent now. Among white voters, the president, low standing to begin with a year ago, down from 38 percent to 35 percent.

And when you get into the general election, the president doesn't have a primary challenger after all. Independent voters matter. The president down 10 points, 10 points in the last year in his approval rating, from 45 to 35, so let's check in with CNN contributors James Carville and Roland Martin to see what they make of the Axelrod analysis. So James and Roland, help me out here. David Axelrod says guys like me, and I know he means you too, Mr. Carville, that we're wrong. And he says the president is strong, especially among the base, but if you look at the numbers we just showed them, overall approval rating down, among Democrats down, among African-Americans the president is stable. Women, he's down, whites he's down, Independents he's down. Is there any other way to read this, James, as the president's in trouble and why is Mr. Axelrod pushing back so quick -- so hard?

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, first of all, I really do like and admire and respect David Axelrod, so to get that out of the way. But I don't think David really believes that. I think he has a job to do, and I've had the same job before, and sometimes we try to put as positive of a spin as we can on things. My point I'm trying to make here, things are not well. We're losing elections.

You know the opposition -- you know we can't let them win this race. Let's recognize that and make some changes and get this thing on the right track. That's the solution here. Let's don't defend that things are going well. They're not going well. Let's fix them and make them go better.

KING: And Roland, when you hear David Axelrod make the case that the base for the president is as strong if not stronger, in the African-American community they can say the numbers at least support that, but when you talk to people, African-American community, Latino community, anywhere else, in terms of the intensity, are people saying they're as fired up for Obama as they were back in 2008?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: They are not saying that. And David knows doggone well that is not the case. And look, I've written about this. I talk about it on the Tom Joyner morning show, my show on TV (INAUDIBLE) Washington watch. That is simply not the case. Understand this. Then Senator Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes. That was a tremendous African-American turnout.

If he gets the same number of white voters in North Carolina, he's going to need the same number of African-Americans just to win that state. I think that state comes off the board. Indiana comes off the board. You have to have people with the same fervor that you had beforehand and so those numbers are correct. And so James talked about you know firing some people.

I made a point a couple of weeks ago in my CNN column that no one fears the president. It is a point about conviction as well. The base wants to know that you're going to fight as hard as you can, and you cannot give the impression that hey, I'm Mr. Bipartisan and let's work this thing out. Folks want to see you go to battle, even if it means losing a good fight.

KING: James, here's a number that's hard to change. I want to show our viewers, President Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton at this point in their presidency. Obviously, Bill Clinton won a second term. George W. Bush won a second term. Approval rating, Barack Obama 43, George W. Bush 52, Bill Clinton 44 -- here's where I think it matters. Barack Obama, 55 percent disapproval. President Bush was at 43. President Clinton was at 44. When a majority disapproves, it gets hard heading into a political year to change that number, doesn't it?

CARVILLE: It does. But again, also if you look at the opposition that he's running against, the Republicans are weaker now than the Democrats were in 2003 or than the Republicans were in 1995 at a comparable time. So, there's someplace to work here.

I think the president could make a case I think once he tells -- I think people generally like this president. I think they think he's well-meaning. I think once he shows that he's dissatisfied and that there's a kind of action agenda, if you will, and that he's pushing a different direction here, I think -- I think he can stop these numbers and reverse them in some cases. In this economy, it's not a good year to be an incumbent anything.

In other words, the point is, they've got to start doing almost everything right as opposed to telling us that they're doing everything right when everybody knows that the -- the piece that I wrote that caused so much of a stir, I have to tell you, John, what I'm really guilty of in that piece is rampant plagiarism because I was just taking something that 100 people told me on 100 different occasions here recently. This was not very original stuff that I put in that piece. It was just a great deal of frustration, honestly.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: John, you have to send a signal somehow, someway to your base that I am going to go to the mat for you. That's what gets people fired up, ginned up, saying that's right, that's my guy, that's who I'm talking. But if you're sort of soft-shoeing it, they're not going to be that excited.

And he needs that fired-up excitement to counter what is going to be a fired-up Tea Party Republican side come November 2012.

KING: And when a president is back on his heels a bit like this, people ask some interesting, some might say funny questions in the polls. The Bloomberg poll asked this question: would things be better under a Hillary Clinton administration?

Thirty-four percent of Americans, that's one in three Americans, say things would be better. Forty-seven percent say they'd be the same. Thirteen percent say worse.

Mr. Carville, you're laughing.

CARVILLE: I don't -- because that's a place I'm not going. I'm getting in enough trouble with this administration.

Look, the president we've got is the president I'm going to be for for re-election, is the president that I want to turn this thing around. And I think we ought to move on from where we are as opposed to where I wish we were.

KING: Roland, do you think James was one of those one in three who got polled by Bloomberg? MARTIN: I would say this. More than likely if you put me and James down as the president, the V.P. person, they'll probably say they'll do a better job. I mean, bottom line is people are so frustrated -- and guess what? In the NFL, we know the backup quarterback is always the best person that the fans want. Ask Tim Tebow right now.

But even Denver knows, they can't win with Tim Tebow playing Q.B. They need Kyle Orton.

KING: All right, Mr. Martin, Mr. Carville, let's call it a night and get ready for some football. Gentlemen, thank you.

CARVILLE: All right. John, thank you.

KING: Still to come, Rick Perry fires back in his war of words with Mitt Romney over Social Security. But might he come to regret this?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But for our kids, these young workers at the Coca-Cola Bottling Company here in Atlanta, we need to be honest with them and to say that this program will not be in place for them -- they're going to be paying into a program that will not be in place, and they know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

Here's the latest news you need to know right now:

The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution tonight to establish a support mission in Libya. It includes restoring public security and unfreezing government assets.

The Justice Department says the violent crime rate not only is dropping, last year's decrease was about three times as great as the annual declines over the last nine years.

On his radio show today, the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned of dire consequences if Washington can't compromise on a way to create new jobs.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK: We have a lot of kids graduating college who can't find jobs. That's what happened in Cairo. That's what happened in Madrid. You don't want those kinds of riots here. But it is people that aren't sharing.

(END AUDIO CLIP) KING: At the Pentagon this morning, a somber ceremony marking National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised, promised never to give up the search.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: No other country has devoted so much energy and so many resources to account for our fallen. We do this because we believe that every life is precious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Up next, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry escalating their policy fight over Social Security in Iowa. It gets a bit personal.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: "ANDERSON COOPER 360" coming up at the top of the hour. Let's check in with Anderson for a preview.

Hey there.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Hey, John, we're keeping them honest tonight on "360."

Serious violent crackdowns against its own citizens. Tonight, the Syrian ambassador to the U.S. denies it's even happening.

Also at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, breaking news out of Libya: anti- Gadhafi fighters pulling back from the former dictator's hometown of Sirte -- one of the few remaining pockets of Gadhafi loyalists.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The rebels told us the town of Barak (ph) was safe. But it wasn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Allahu Akbar!

(GUNFIRE)

WEDEMAN: We're in this town that's partially under the control of the rebels, but there are other parts of it that still remain loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. The situation is very fluid at the moment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Fluid to say the least. A live report ahead from two of the cities under attack.

Also tonight, we're going to close up on what happened at SeaWorld. Remember this? What caused the death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau who was pulled underwater by the killer whale at SeaWorld last year? A government investigation found that SeaWorld willfully put its trainers at risk. SeaWorld disputes the findings. A hearing starts today in a trial. We'll talk to a former SeaWorld trainer. Those stories and tonight's "Ridiculist" at the top of the hour -- John.

KING: Looking forward to seeing it in a few minutes.

The Social Security debate between the two leading Republican presidential candidates escalated sharply today and took a more personal tone in the process.

Knowing that Texas Governor Rick Perry was campaigning in Iowa, the campaign of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney distributed a memo noting roughly one in five Iowans receive Social Security benefits. The memo then reprinted quotes from Rick Perry's book and television appearances where he calls Social Security a failure and went on to say, quote, "Give it back to the states. Why is the federal government even in the pension program or health care delivery program?" Those are Governor Perry's words. And he has made plain in the past he thinks Social Security is unconstitutional.

Now, though, he prefers not to talk about that. Instead, he's unapologetic in making the case Social Security finances are a mess. But instead of saying turn it over to the states or eliminate it, he promises to fix it. And he says the Romney attacks are off base.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PERRY: Let's not scare seniors and tell them that this program is going to go away -- mean old thoughtless, heartless people are going to take the program away. That is political cowardice at its greatest.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KING: Yet in a different speech in Iowa today, Governor Perry went on to suggest Social Security might someday go away, that its days are numbered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PERRY: It is broken. Kids know that paying into something that's not going to be there into the future is called a Ponzi scheme. And I don't have a -- you know, I don't make any apologies for calling that program what it is. Don't try to mislead our young Americans and let them think that they are going to pay into the current program and it's going to be there for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So has Perry figured out to navigate what for years has been called the third rail of American politics, or is saying Social Security won't be there for too long a recipe for political disaster?

CNN contributor Erick Erickson is with us tonight from Macon, Georgia. He's the editor in chief of the conservative blog RedState.com.

Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, Mike Huckabee guy back in 2008. He's in Nashville tonight.

Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Maria Cardona with me right here in Washington.

Chip, I want to go to you first. Based on your experience in Iowa, your experience in campaigns. If you listen to Governor Perry there, he says push back to Romney, I want to fix it, don't scare seniors. But then later in the day, he looks over at the young people and says this might not be there for you. Can you campaign on that?

CHIP SALTSMAN, FMR. HUCKABEE 2008 CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I think we can. We all know the math on Social Security. When it started, there were 80 workers for every one retiree, and we lived to about 65. And now, there's two workers for every retiree and hopefully we're going to live a lot longer than that. At least I hope you will, John.

But it is really in Iowa, there is a lot of frustration with the federal government as a whole. I think Governor Perry is trying to use Social Security as a way to kind of talk about the federal government mismanagement. He's kind of been -- I'm not going to say wishy-washy but he's kind of been both sides of this. It's a Ponzi scheme but then we're going to fix it but then he talks about how it's not going to be there one day.

Governor Romney clearly thinks this is an issue that he can ride a long way. He's been riding it for a week, and I think we're going to be seeing it for several more weeks, all the way up until Iowa.

KING: And part of it, Eric, is, you know, A, can you campaign saying that? But B, can you campaign if you're giving a bit of a mixed message? And I understand it if the governor wants to explain it, that if you're on the program now, it won't change. If you're 50 or pick an age and you're approaching the program, it won't change.

But his message after Romney attacks him saying you say it's unconstitutional, send it back to the states, you call it a failure. And then to say publicly, you know, these young guys, it won't be there for you, you're paying into it now maybe but it won't be there for you -- is he handing something to governor Romney or is he just being bold and has he figured out something no politician before him has?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I think he's figured out that we're at a point in the country where even polls of senior citizens show that they kind of get it, that they're worried about their grandchildren's future and their grandchildren's Social Security.

But you know, John, for the life of me I can't figure out why Romney or Perry want to stick on this. We've got 9 percent unemployment in the country. No one's really talking about ending Social Security. Even Perry in the several debates has said and in his book says it's not worth refighting 70 years of time to fix it.

There's 9 percent unemployment in the country. It may go up. We'll see where it goes. But this seems like it's a distraction from the issue.

I've got to tell you, though, looking at the CNN poll from this past week and looking at several of the other polls, the senior citizens seem to not really be too worried about Romney's -- or Perry's going to do and the polling suggests they're going to have Social Security. They are, however, worried about the future.

KING: Well, let's look at some of the polling because Gallup did some polling I'm trying to figure out if this is hurting Governor Perry among Republicans. Do Governor Perry's statements on Social Security make you more or less likely to support him for president? Nineteen percent of Republicans say more likely, 24 percent say no difference, 19 percent less likely. You can call that almost a wash.

But here's where I think it could matter. Look at independents. 12 percent say more likely 21 percent no different, 32 percent less likely.

I assume, Maria Cardona, that is where Democrats will direct the attack ads if Governor Perry emerges as the nominee.

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's exactly right, John, because again, you see in the general election, it's independents that matter.

But there's a very important point here. I actually think this whole thing between Perry and Romney on Social Security is silly and this is something that Democrats are going to continue to point out as well, because while Perry has -- is using the fire bombs in terms of the rhetoric and calling it unconstitutional and a Ponzi scheme, Romney wants to do the exact same thing as Perry in terms of privatization.

Privatization of Social Security basically means getting rid of it as we know it and putting it in the hands of Wall Street.

So, both of these candidates -- let's be very clear to the American people -- want to do something to Social Security that will basically make it go away the way that we see it today, and none of -- neither one of them --

KING: George W. Bush won two elections -- George W. Bush won two elections, and that was his position, you could put some of it, a small percentage of it in private accounts, but the economy was in a different place. And I think the big issue there's --

CARDONA: Exactly. And Bush failed to pass his plan on that.

KING: Chip and Erick, as the Republicans in the conversation, let me ask you this. It has something to do with this. So, Governor Romney, his campaign says we're focused on New Hampshire. We didn't participate in the straw poll. He sends this e-mail into Iowa. He has said quietly that he might sneak back into Iowa. They are calling people out there saying, you know what, don't say Governor Romney's not going to play in Iowa, at some point we'll invest more. Does he need now to invest some in Iowa just to make sure Governor Perry doesn't get a big victory and a big bounce?

Chip, to you first.

SALTSMAN: Yes, I think Governor Romney needs to play somewhere else besides New Hampshire. I mean, these guys are running in two different places. Perry is running in Iowa and South Carolina and Governor Romney in New Hampshire.

If he gets a big win in Iowa, he's going to have lots of momentum. He's going to go in South Carolina. Historically, our party, whoever wins two out of the first three nominating contests win nomination. And Governor Romney knows the math does not look good for him and he needs to do something to slow Governor Perry down and I think that's what today was about.

KING: Sorry, Erick, do you go in there and say, all right, you hope Bachmann wins. At this point, you probably think Romney is going to win. But do you go in there essentially to try to take a lot of moderate Republicans. I know we talk about evangelicals and the Tea Party in Iowa. But there are a lot of moderate Republicans.

Is Romney trying to say, let me get that so that I can come in second, or a strong third and at least deny Perry some votes? Is that the idea?

ERICKSON: To a degree, yes. He wants to kill Perry's momentum. When you look at the calendar, the first four races are going to be Iowa, then New Hampshire, then they're going to go to the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina. If he -- a lot of candidates like to pole vault over Iowa, dismiss Nevada, go into South Carolina -- it's a southern state, South Carolina. So, Perry has got strength there.

Nevada should be Romney's strong point, except Perry just got the very popular Brian Sandoval's endorsement out there. So, there is no leapfrog.

If Perry comes in strong in Iowa, he goes straight to South Carolina, forget New Hampshire. Then, all of a sudden, he's got the popular governor of Nevada campaigning for him. He and Rick Scott are really good friends though he hasn't endorsed him yet.

Romney sees what's happening here. He's got to get into Iowa to get take some of that momentum. So, even if Perry comes in first, the headline is not that Perry wins but that Mitt Romney had a surprisingly strong second.

KING: Everybody, stay put. We got a fascinating game of chess playing out in the Republican side. Stay put.

When we come back, more on the Republican infighting and one of the Republican candidates tries today to make some hay with a potential scandal involving the Obama administration.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: We spent some time Wednesday night detailing questions about whether political favoritism helped the now bankrupt clean energy company get more than a half billion dollar loan from the Obama administration. Now, that company Solyndra is bankrupt. Taxpayers will pick up the tab.

Congress wants to know why the administration approved the loan at a time some staffers were raising questions. Congress also wants to know why once the company started having cash flow problems, the administration then agreed to restructure the loan. The way they restructured it, puts the investors ahead of the taxpayers in the event of a default.

The FBI is looking into the company, too. And today, Solyndra made its debut as a campaign issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Just like Solyndra, where there's a big payoff to a big political donor and a big abuse of executive privilege. That's all we're seeing coming out of Washington, D.C. It's wrong.

It's wrong to abuse your executive authority. It's wrong to pay off political donors. That's wrong. That's not America. We don't do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Erick Erickson, Chip Saltsman, Maria Cardona, still with us.

Erick, to you first. Passionate there from Congresswoman Bachmann. Does she need to be careful, though? There are a lot, a lot, a lot legitimate questions about what happened here. But we don't have any evidence yet, firm evidence, to connect the dots as she does in that speech. Fair game or does she need to be careful?

ERICKSON: I think Solyndra has become fair game. I mean, as much as Halliburton ever was for the Bush administration. I think there are enough tangential facts linking people to the Obama administration.

The Republicans will probably be able to message it better than Halliburton -- yes, better than the Democrats did on Halliburton. Although I got to say, after this past week with Michele Bachmann and the HPV stuff, I'm a little leery of her taking the lead on it because it may blow up in their face. No disrespect to Congresswoman Bachmann but thing are viewed a little more skeptically when she runs with things right now.

KING: Chip, help me out. Why would she do that? Obviously, jobs and the economy are issue number one. She's out in Iowa where you're trying to appeal to cultural conservatives and Tea Party. Give us, from a strategic tactical sense, why do you think -- all right, let's try this today. SALTSMAN: It feeds into all the frustration that people are feeling about Washington right now. You've got a big company that got a big federal government loan and went bankrupt after a bunch of junior staffers said this was a bad deal.

And then a political donor of President Obama visits the White House. And then two weeks later, it's approved. It feeds the story itself.

And Congressman Bachmann -- whether you love her or hate her -- she knows how to get in front of a story and make it her own, I think she's going to do this one for the next couple days, especially in Iowa because it feeds what's going on Iowa and across the country. A great frustration with all things Washington.

KING: How nervous Democrats about this? Some of the Democrats on the congressional committee investigating this. They were told by the White House, first, we had no involvement in this loan.

So, all the Democrats vote no and the Republicans want to subpoena the records. Those records come up and it turns out the chief of staff's office, other offices in the White House were asking questions about it. Again, I want to be careful.

CARDONA: Right.

KING: There are legitimate questions about what happened here. But how nervous are Democrats that the president who promised not to play the old Washington game, promised to be the most transparent in history, might have a problem on his hands here?

CARDONA: Well, I don't think it's the greatest perception. But in terms of Democrats being nervous, I think that both Democrats and Republicans need to be nervous because no one right now in Washington frankly, except for the Democrats are talking about jobs.

And this is where I think Michele Bachmann needs to have, she needs a reality check. She is not talking about jobs. Perry and Romney are not talking about jobs. Jobs is the number one issue for Americans.

ERICKSON: Wait, wait.

CARDONA: And they're frustrated with Washington. And, let me just say, yes, the White House needs to get all this information out now instead of the dribble, dribble, dribble. But, again, Americans are focused about jobs.

ERICKSON: Wait, this is stimulus, and the company went abrupt after stimulus money to create jobs. And so, all these jobs the company was supposed to create, there aren't any jobs anymore. They've all gone because of this company. And it was an Obama donor involved here, now priority to taxpayers to get money back. That doesn't look just bad. That directly implicates --

CARDONA: In terms of perception, you know, Bachmann also attacked Perry on the Merck issue. So, you know, she does have to be careful. And Republicans have to be careful, too. They should focus on jobs. Jobs is the number one issue here.

KING: I think the intensity here tells me we've got an issue that's going to be debated on the campaign trail. And I would note the Democrat in the group said the administration needs to come up with the answers and more quickly.

That's it for us tonight. We're out of time. Have a great weekend. See you right here on Monday.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.