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Republicans Prepare to Debate

Aired October 18, 2011 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.

As Wolf noted, we're live in Las Vegas tonight, showdown time for the Republicans who would be president.

As we count down to tonight's big debate, two big questions. Number one, can Herman Cain withstand all of the scrutiny that comes with his meteoric rise in the polls?


HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, the way it feels to be the front-runner or tied for the front is that you got this big bullseye on your back. So that bullseye keeps gets bigger.


KING: And question number two tonight, will the Texas governor, Rick Perry, finally show up? But the surprising Cain factor first. Rival Ron Paul promises to take aim at Cain's catchy 999 tax reform plan.


REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: What 999 does is he compromises in the worst way. He gives you a sales tax and a flat tax, and opens up the door to a value added tax. I think it's very, very dangerous.


KING: And even the front-runner, Mitt Romney, now gently taking aim, warning Republicans who might like Mr. Cain's lack of political experience to think again.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have a guy who's president we didn't know very well as a country when he got elected and we wondered what would happen if we elected someone who had no experience. Now we know.


KING: Now the Perry challenge is, to me, just as critical tonight, maybe even more so. His debate performances have been weak and his views on immigration and other issues are giving some conservatives pause. A strong night for Governor Perry is mandatory if he's to stop a stunning slide from atop the pack to the crowded middle.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to be looking in that camera talking to the young man or the lady out there without a job, somebody that's hanging their hopes on someone who gets it from the standpoint of how we create an environment where job creators can risk their capital and have a chance to have a return on investment.


KING: This state, Nevada, has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. So talking jobs will get people here listening. But Governor Perry says, this state and the country, well, you're going to need to wait a little bit longer for more specifics.


PERRY: In between eight to 10 days you will get to see in detail what my tax plan is. I'm laying out an economic plan, if you will, over a period of time. This last week we laid out jobs and energy side of it.


KING: So what else is at stake? A big night in Las Vegas. The eighth debate of the Republican nominating contest.

Amy Tarkanian is the Nevada chairwoman. And CNN contributors Mary Matalin and Alex Castellanos, well, they have deep experience navigating the stress of debates and the mine field of presidential politics.

Madam Chairwoman, let me start with you.

Herman Cain, if you judge politics by all the rules, no way, and yet is he real?


I think people like you mentioned, they're tired of having the regular politician. He's a businessman, he's your everyday man, and I think a lot of people understand that, and they can see themselves in him.

KING: They see themselves in him, Mary Matalin, but he's now risen to the point where as he says he gets the target on his back. You rise in the pools, guess what, the harpoons start coming your way. Even Governor Romney -- if you heard at the beginning, Governor Romney being very gentle.

Remember, in the past debates, me and Herman are the guys who have made a payroll, me and Herman, we're the businessmen, these other guys don't get it. Now even Governor Romney starting to turn his attention a little bit. And here's one of the reasons why.

Our new poll out today, which GOP candidate most likely to get the economy moving? Herman Cain -- 33 percent of Republicans say Herman Cain, above Governor Romney and above Governor Perry. If you're Mitt Romney, that's the first big flashing warning sign, isn't it?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No, the flashing sign, warning sign for Mitt Romney is that he hasn't gotten above 23 percent despite being in this race for five years, despite living in New Hampshire, despite being the best debater, despite raising all of the money, despite consolidating the establishment. He just can't get above that mark.

Herman Cain and Perry, whom I do not write off yet, we still have 75 percent of the electorate that is not going for Mitt Romney. If he gets it, they will be wildly enthusiastic about it, but the warning sign was way back when for Mitt Romney.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: But, John, there is a survey out that has just Rick Perry vs. Mitt Romney and Romney gets 54 percent in that one to Perry's 39.

So Republicans are willing to go there, but I think we're so concerned about, A., the economy, and, B., about losing to Obama that we're looking for a candidate who's equal to our fears. And that's Superman, and he doesn't really exist.

KING: So we will learn a lot about Herman Cain. He's risen to the top of the polls. Now people will see whether he can take it, whether he's a president. You heard Governor Romney in the beginning questioning his experience. Ron Paul said he will go after him on the 999 plan, saying instituting a sales tax would be devastatingly bad for the country.

Ron Paul also says this. Don't believe Herman Cain when he says he's an outsider. He says he was part of the Dole/Kemp campaign, part of the Forbes campaign, ran for Senate, ran for president before, and -- this is where Ron Paul goes off the reservation -- he was a member of the Federal Reserve Board out in Kansas City.


KING: But listen to Congressman Paul here saying he's no outsider.


REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: They haven't invited me to become part of the Federal Reserve system.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I don't think so.

PAUL: He's part of the banking establishment, and no wonder, because he defended the bailouts and TARP funds and all of this. So he's part of that system.


KING: So everybody's fighting for their niche. Ron Paul saying this guy's not an outsider.

Smart strategy, right?

TARKANIAN: Oh, absolutely. Ron Paul's very much against the Federal Reserve, and we all know that, and that's going to be a very, very hot spot, hot subject for his followers.

So if Herman Cain is one of the outsiders, as he says, then obviously he's going to lose votes with his constituents.

KING: If you were advising Herman Cain and you're in the green room tonight and he's getting ready to head out on that stage, and you have been there, you have been there for candidates in the past, what's the last word of advice you would give him?

MATALIN: Really, in this time, and given that it's his strength, be authentic, continue to be a happy warrior. Just get serious. He's had -- he's entered the field in an advantageous position. When you enter it front-runner, that's very hard. When you get up to the front-runner, he's had time to flesh these things out.

If you saw his interview earlier with Wolf today, he got -- he wanted three questions deep. I'm sure -- and he seems to be a fast learner in the political business, so he needs to do more of what he did on "WOLF" and flesh out 999 and flesh out all of the rest of his positions.

KING: Now, that likable, happy warrior, if you look at our polling out today, people saying he's by far the most likable Republican. Why does that matter in picking a president?

CASTELLANOS: We put this on survey years ago. Which campaign's having the most fun? And what we learned was, it's the one winning. Why? Because the -- having a good time out there tells people you have confidence, you have strength and you're optimistic. It's a mark of leadership.

He has to keep being Herman Cain. But he's also got to take his game to a more serious level now. You can't just talk about electrified fences.

KING: Luckily, we have three people here with hardy voices. Democracy's a wonderful thing, and we have got some loud people around us demonstrating a little bit. That's OK. That's their right. We're happy to have them out here as we move forward to our debate tonight.

As you can see that, that's the left of American politics here talking tonight, service employees unions and others here. It's a Republican debate but there you see the left protesting.

Let's move on to Governor Perry. Governor Perry on the Neal Boortz radio show this morning says I'm going to look into the camera and I'm going to talk to the American people about jobs tonight. But if you want the specifics, you will have to wait another eight, 10 days, maybe two weeks.

Can he wait that long? A guy who got in late, has had -- forgive me -- a couple of miserable debate performances, when you talk to grassroot Republicans here in your state, are they nervous about him?

TARKANIAN: They are a little bit nervous. And quite honestly, I think it would be better if we did wait for the eight days, so I -- we had a perfect plan. I don't if there's such a thing as a perfect plan. But I would be more willing to wait for that extra days to make sure that it's strategically correct and ready to move forward.

However, we're ready now, we're ready as of yesterday. Las Vegas and Nevada is hurting. We're at the bottom of almost every list and it's going to be jobs, jobs, jobs and the economy for us. He needs to make sure that comes out.

KING: Given that, how important this state could be in the nominating process, how critical this state could be, even though it's a small state in a close presidential election, Nevada, New Mexico, these could be the swing states out here in the West. Given that, can Governor Perry really go on the debate stage tonight, after so many mediocre performances, and say, well, here's a rough outline, but hang with me, wait a little bit?

MATALIN: You know what? In the old days, if you had a defining moment in a debate, it was great. Now the debates are the defining moment. That's a completely different world.

Looking at these polls, some -- a number of Republicans who are watching them, a sizable number of Republicans are now watching the debates. What Republicans are doing, where it counts, not in the polls, and the debates are important, but on the ground, in Iowa, in South Carolina -- Governor Sandoval is for Rick Perry here.

Even in New Hampshire, a former GOP chairman. So he's doing the building blocks on the ground where it counts. I know it's boring, it's not sexy, but it's where people turn out to vote.

KING: Is Herman Cain proving that it might not matter this time? We always say in politics you have a Ross Perot movement. Herman Cain is very much like Ross Perot. Send me to Washington, I will drive everybody crazy. And some people seem to like that. He's got a little bit of Tea Party.

Every time we wonder, how much is the Internet changing our politics? When will all the old rules -- and we all lived by them, so, God forbid, we won't know what to do. But we all wonder, when will all the old rules mean nothing?

CASTELLANOS: When? Right now. Ask Moammar Gadhafi, who said, by the way, there's no organized opposition against me.

KING: Moammar Gadhafi is not at the debate tonight, I can assure you. We don't know where he is, but he's not here.


CASTELLANOS: He's having a bad reelection year.

The point of it is, even Barack Obama last cycle went into states like North Carolina and found ready-made organizations, people who self-organized because the structure is there now. So Herman Cain gets more time than you would think now, in today's world, to organize. And he can do it backwards. You don't have to do boots on the ground first. You can do media presence, name I.D., and then do you organizational stuff.

But I don't think, John, that I'm not ready yet is the slogan that Rick Perry needs tonight.

KING: And, Mary, you made the point about Governor Romney having this ceiling, he's been in the race a long time. Now, Alex says maybe if you get to a shorter race, that would be the question. Governor Romney has the money. He will be there when we get down to two or three candidates. He will still be there.

But now that we have seven on the stage tonight and Governor Huntsman off in New Hampshire having his little boycott gimmick, in terms of Governor Romney, who has been steady -- his own staff calls him the tortoise, slow and steady, come out of every debate -- I was talking to Tagg Romney today. I bumped into him in the hotel, and he says, we're feeling really great, except no candidate bats 1000. Eventually you're going to have a bad night.

Does Governor Romney -- he has to have confidence coming into this, right?

MATALIN: He has confidence, and he's a fine debater. And maybe all of the rules are changing, but at the end of the day conservatives and an overwhelming proportion, percentage of independents want an economic plan that doesn't have a cap on cap gains. They want an earnest, serious, commitment to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Ryan reform.

CASTELLANOS: But they also want, Mary, a candidate who can beat Obama. Today Herman Cain beats Romney on who can do the economy. But Romney beats Cain on he can beat Obama.

MATALIN: Seventy percent of the people don't even make up their minds until the final days in New Hampshire and Iowa, and I'm telling you...

KING: In our latest poll, I think it was 67 percent say they are open to changing their minds. We have a long way to go.

Your state was a test for the Tea Party, and you had Sharron Angle who ran against Senator Reid. She collapsed in the end. And many people say that's what happens if you get an inexperienced candidate who says some things that maybe aren't so politically correct to borrow the term Herman Cain likes to use when he says controversial things.

What is your sense? How is the party changing at the grassroots level that make even experts like these guys and guys like me who have covered a lot of elections, maybe you come into a state and you say, wow, I'm going to learn a new lesson because things on the ground are changing?


No, I definitely appreciate all the effort that the Tea Party puts in here in Nevada. And I think, quite honestly, these are just people that finally have a voice, and I welcome opinions and their efforts, like I said. So it definitely makes a difference here in Nevada.

Sharron Angle had a very strong following and Herman Cain has a very strong following along with Ron Paul. Mitt Romney has basically set up base here and is working very hard. I don't know how strong his ground game is necessarily. But I know Ron Paul and Herman Cain, their grassroots is pretty strong.

KING: And you see their enthusiasm wherever you go. Who else tonight? We have the rest of the field. Bachmann took off early on, she has stumbled. Senator Santorum is trying to hit the social conservative base of the party. If we wanted to make a 2008 comparison, he wants to be Governor Huckabee and surprise us in Iowa and see if he can springboard.

Speaker Gingrich has come up a little bit, it seems like most Republicans think a great debater, a smart man, but we are looking for the future of the party, not the past of the party. Who else in the second tier if you will has the most at stake tonight?

MATALIN: You know, Newt has been -- let's say collectively, I like these debates best when they're going against Obama, and not against each other. Other than Romney on health care. And call me kumbaya on this, but we really need to hear more against Obama.

And really, Newt's been the best at that, and he's completely rehabilitated whatever credibility he lost by the fracas at the beginning. And it's not -- I don't know that he has the most to gain in this contest.

KING: If you have to pick one person in the second tier who you watch as somebody who might come out, you think it's Newt?

MATALIN: I think so, yes.

CASTELLANOS: If Perry doesn't have a good debate tonight and he starts leaking air again, then I think Mary's exactly right. He's had -- Newt Gingrich has had several good debates, and he's demonstrated some strength. There's going to be a little bit a Newt boomlet out there.

But I would also keep an eye on Bachmann. She's had several weeks now to kind of regroup and you're beginning to see her get her feet on the ground. That's another candidate to watch tonight.

KING: All right. We will watch.

Alex, Mary, Madam Chairwoman, thanks for being here. The chairwoman has an election this Saturday as well.

So appreciate your time when you're busy campaigning. Enjoy the debate tonight.

When we come back, Las Vegas, Mr. Las Vegas, right here, Wayne Newton, his voice is legendary. And guess what? He has an increasingly active voice in politics as well. And as we go to break, look at this. You're watching time-lapse video here of our team's amazing preparations for tonight's debate. It starts in less than two hours. Stay right here.


KING: Live pictures there of the Venetian Hotel. That's where our big debate is coming up and it's coming up soon. The Venetian one of the new landmarks here in Las Vegas.

There's no one who knows the city better than Wayne Newton, the man who has earned the nickname Mr. Las Vegas. Started performing in this city in 1959, watching it and the surrounding county grow from about 139,000 people back then to nearly two million now.

You know him from the entertainment world, but he's long been active in Republican politics. And so far he doesn't like what he's seeing in the Republican field. In his words, he would -- quote -- "fire them all and start over."

Wayne Newton joins us now live.

Appreciate your time tonight. Thanks for being here.

WAYNE NEWTON, ENTERTAINER: Good to see you, John. Thank you.

KING: Fire them all and start over? Why?

NEWTON: I feel that like our politicians on both sides -- this is nonpartisan -- both sides have lost contact with the American public.

They feel like the American public is working for them, instead of them working for the American public.

KING: And so when you look at this field, seven candidates on stage here tonight, you're a Republican. If you have to vote in your caucuses, are you going to vote for one of these guys or is there somebody out there you say -- you calling anybody saying get in, get in?

NEWTON: No, I'm not calling anybody because I wish there was someone that I could call. I wish that we could reincarnate Ronald Reagan, for example, to step up now, because he was a man who believed in what he said and acted upon it.

KING: And so you don't view any of these guys in that mold. Let me go through some of them.


NEWTON: Not as yet.

KING: Herman Cain's has gone from nowhere, gone from nowhere. He's a guy you might he was a B or D level act. And suddenly he's on the A stage tonight.

When you look at Herman Cain, as somebody who knows how to build an audience and build support among people, what do you see?

NEWTON: I see a very intelligent man. I see a man who probably, given the right circumstances and the right team around him, could be a formidable opponent.

What I see also is a man who has never held public office, and I believe that that in itself could be enough to take some tarnish off of his rise.


KING: As a man who has known presidents, does that worry you?

NEWTON: Yes. All we have to do is look at our current president and know what that brings us.

KING: And so we're in this state. It's this beautiful city here, and you see nice crowds here all cheering for you here. We're also in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country, has had a devastating housing crisis.

When you're in that room listening to these guys tonight, and you're going to go to the debate, what are you looking for in terms of how are you going to help with the economy?

NEWTON: I'm looking for the person who has the power of his convictions, who is not looking to some very special interest group, who is not looking to the Hispanics, the blacks, the whites, the reds.

I'm looking for a man who is interested in the people of the United States, because, in my opinion, which I respect...


NEWTON: ... that is the one place all of the politicians are missing today, including our current president.

They have so -- they are so inundated with acts of the past, the way politics have been practiced in the past, that they're all going down that same road. And I believe that the American public, at least those I talk to, just want somebody to stand up and say, this is what I believe in, this is how we get it done, sure, it's going to hurt, but it's going to benefit everybody.

KING: Wayne, you talk about what you believe in. You're a Republican, a conservative, and yet, in the last election here, the Senate election, you supported Harry Reid over his opponent, the Republican Tea Party candidate, Sharron Angle. Why? What made Wayne Newton say I'm going outside of my box and support Senator Reid?

NEWTON: For the same reasons that I just expounded upon.

Harry Reid, I have known for 30 years. He's a man who believes in what he says. He's a man that when you go to him with a problem, let's talk about for example Yucca Mountain -- when everybody, including George W. Bush, whom I have a great deal of respect for, voted to send all of the nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, it was Harry Reid who stopped it. So when it came to being a Nevadan, he stepped up.

KING: So that was all politics is local?

NEWTON: Yes, politics and friendship, and the fact that if he says something that I disagree with philosophically, right, I have enough respect in him and his ability to articulate what he means, that it will make me rethink, is my opinion correct? And I think that's all anybody's asking for.

KING: For you to be successful as long as you have been, you have to be a pretty good politician, not just a good entertainer. But you have to change as the times change, as the audience changes, as the technology changes and everything. So help these guys out. They're entertainers, too. They're on the other side of it. They're trying to get votes. You're trying to build an audience and build a fan base.

Help them out. What would your advice be to these candidates?

NEWTON: My advice would be to wait until the plane goes.


KING: Fascinating. You know the value of microphones. We can get you right over the plane.


NEWTON: My advice would be to forget the last week of sitting in rooms and having people play the roles of these other candidates, so that they could jump in and be cute or be smart. Go out there and connect with the people. Go say what you mean and mean what you say.

KING: And so you're not -- you're not happy with this field. You're not going to...

NEWTON: Not yet. Not yet. KING: You're not going to get a new candidate. If one of these guys is against Barack Obama next November, any idea, any chance you would vote Democrat?


KING: Or will just hold your nose and vote for one of these guys?

NEWTON: No, there is no chance I would vote Democrat for the simple reason that I believe that President Obama has been under certain restraints and constraints in the last three years, simply because he wanted another four-year term.

Now, considering what he's done with the bailout, considering what he's done with Obamacare, considering what he's done with all of those things, imagine if those constraints, restraints didn't apply and you didn't have to worry about running again in four years.

So the whole health issue is quite simple for a president, and also Congress and the Senate, and that is give us the same thing they have.

KING: So if you think you need somebody different -- let me give you -- in closing, I will give you a chance right now. Wayne Newton can jump into the race and I will convince them to let you into the debate tonight.


NEWTON: I don't think that I'm qualified, for openers. I think that most everyone up there is qualified. It's whether or not they have the power of their convictions. And, if they do, they will get my vote.

KING: Well, I hope you enjoy your time in there. I will check in with you after, see if anybody impresses you.

NEWTON: It's a deal.

KING: Appreciate you stopping by here.

NEWTON: Thank you, John.

KING: Wayne Newton, thank you very much.

NEWTON: Thank you.

And coming up: the truth about how you would be affected by Herman Cain's 999 tax plan. Here's a hint. It depends on how much you like to buy secondhand items.


KING: Whatever you think of the man or his politics, Herman Cain is living the American dream. He was born into poverty, now a wealthy former CEO and Republican presidential contender. He's a tenacious survivor of stage four cancer and a candidate who has a gift for marketing and who usually leaves his audience wowed with his story and with his passion.


CAIN: I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some because of the great nation the United States of America.



KING: But here's tonight's "Truth."

Mr. Cain's own defense of his signature 999 tax plan, well, it's a bitter pill for those hoping to follow in his rags-to-riches footsteps to claim their own piece of the American dream. Listen here as Mr. Cain explains to me how a working-class family could avoid a big tax hit under the 999 approach.


CAIN: Here is a fact. It would depend upon what that family spent their money on. When you get to that third nine, which is that national sales tax, it depends upon whether or not they buy used goods or whether or not they buy new goods.


KING: Let's listen to that explanation one more time.


KING: Well, you did concede some people would pay more by your calculations. Who would pay more, Mr. Cain?

CAIN: The people that would pay more are the people who would buy mostly new goods.


KING: Now, I grew up on hand-me-downs, and my dad could never, never afford a new car. In this painful recession and in its wake, millions of American families are buying used, or are many not buying at all. And most of them, well, they're not complaining, but they sure hope things get better for them and for everyone. And when they do, you bet they would like -- no, they would love -- to buy a new car or maybe a new washing machine.

And even if you accept Mr. Cain's logic: well, those people at the bottom, they can't buy used food. Look at this. The poorest American households spend more than half of their income on housing. And they spend nearly 40 percent of their income on food. The Cain plan, 9-9-9, would levy a 9 percent sales tax on that food.

So to those with the least, that have suffered the most in recent years, this, frankly, just sounds cold.


CAIN: It depends upon whether or not they buy used goods or whether or not they buy new goods.


KING: Now the value of an extended campaign and so many debates is that we learn not just what the candidates propose. We also get to see up close who they are.


CAIN: So I can't comment on so when you make the statement, is it fair, well, how do you define fairness?


KING: Well, defining fairness is up to individual voters, up to you at home. It's not up to me. But it's a plain truth that asking the working guy to take a bigger hit than the wealthy guy, asking the little guy to dream of buying used not new, well, Mr. Cain, that's a very, very tough sell.

Up next, the hour's top headlines, including the reasons behind today's celebrations in both Israel and Gaza. Plus, tonight's "Number." Well, it could be the key to win Nevada in presidential politics and perhaps the key to winning your state, as well.


KING: Welcome back. Here's the latest news you need to know right now.

It's been a day of joyous homecomings in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit arrived home after spending more than five years as a prisoner of Palestinian militants. In exchange for his release, the Israelis are freeing just over 1,000 prisoners, about one-sixth of the Palestinians they've jailed for national security offenses.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent today in Libya. She's the first cabinet-level U.S. official to visit the country since Muammar Gadhafi's ouster.

Bank of America reported a profit today, but it's no longer the nation's largest bank in terms of total assets. The new No. 1 is JPMorgan Chase.

And it will cost you a penny more to mail a letter next January. First-class stamp price is going up to 45 cents.

Today's "Number" for us is specific to the state of Nevada, but numbers like it are very important in every state. The "Number" tonight, 26.5. Now here in Nevada, 26.5 percent of the population is Hispanic, and that number is growing, which makes this state a key testing ground as Republicans hope to rebound from their dismal performance with Latinos in the 2008 presidential race.

Here in Nevada, 76 percent of Latinos voted for Barack Obama in 20008, only 22 percent for John McCain. Nevada is key, but hardly the only state where Latinos are critical.

Here in the west, the growing Latino vote can swing close elections in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Back east, now Florida, Virginia, even potentially North Carolina, as battleground states where, if things are close, Latino voters could make the difference. We'll keep an eye on that.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Erin, I usually need to toss to you in New York.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: And here we are, in Vegas.

KING: We are. It is Vegas, isn't it?

BURNETT: It's nice, and it's warm. And so we're going to be talking about two things. One, actually the guy, this resort, the Venetian, which is one of the biggest in the world, is a real epicenter of all of the problems that have been happening in the economy and how you've been seeing so much difficulty.

So the guy who owns it, one of the richest men in America and in the world. We sat down and spoke with him. We'll talk to him and also Grover Norquist, as we deep dive into the tax plans. What, is it nine plus nine plus nine? Is it 9-9-9? What is it? We're going to talk about that.

KING: Erin Burnett. Now Erin, we were talking yesterday. I made you a promise. I said when you came to Vegas I'd have something for you. And I'm a man of my word.

BURNETT: Something cold and wet.

KING: There you go. There you go.

BURNETT: Look at this.

KING: I was told once this could be career ending. But you know what?

BURNETT: You know what? So what?

KING: It's all right.

BURNETT: All right.

KING: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, right?


KING: Yes. BURNETT: Pretty nice. We can do this before the show, right?

KING: No. Just a sip. They're real, trust me. They're real.

All right. I'm going to let Erin sneak away with hers. I'm going to hand mine off. Next...

BURNETT: Cold and wet is right.

KING: Summing up the Republican candidates in one word, and it's not margarita.


KING: Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann arriving just moments ago for a big CNN debate in Las Vegas tonight. Her husband Mark is there. You see Congresswoman Bachmann making her way in, being escorted by our staff.

The big debate is coming up, the candidates getting prepared right now. These debates are a big chance for the candidates to create or to reinforce a brand, and it seems many of you, well, already are forming strong impressions.

The Pew Research Center asked Americans for a one-word response and then read the names of the GOP contenders. For Herman Cain, it was "9-9-9." No shock there, I guess. For Mitt Romney, "Mormon" was the top response. And "Texas" is the top one -- the top one-word tag for Rick Perry.

What do they and the other conditions need to prove, and sell in tonight's debate? Joining us here in Las Vegas, CNN contributor Mary Matalin; in New York, the Republican strategist Ed Rollins; and in St. Louis, CNN contributor Dana Loesch.

All right, Dana Loesch, I'm going to start with you. Since we went through Cain and Romney and Perry, what is your one-word for Michele Bachmann?

DANA LOESCH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Grassroots. She's been very involved with the grassroots. Actually, you know what? Grassroots, and I know I only get one word, but Obama care, because she says that quite a lot, and it's been the focus, going to change it. It's Obama care. Because it happened simultaneously.


LOESCH: It did, I swear. But no, that's -- I think that's the one-word association.

KING: Mary? Mary Matalin, one word, Michele Bachmann?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think she's persistent. She's a fighter. She's not a whiner. People like her. She gets back up on the saddle every time she gets knocked down. People want a fighter, and she is that. KING: Ed Rollins, one word. You worked for Michele Bachmann, and things haven't been so great since you left. What's your one word?


KING: True believer. That's two words.

ROLLINS: Believer.

KING: All right. Let's move -- believer's -- believer's good. I want to focus a bit -- we're going to spend most of our time talking about the Republicans, but I want you to listen to something.

President Obama is out. He's doing a bus tour of Virginia and North Carolina. Two states critical to his reelection hopes, two states he put in the Democratic column, surprising so, back in 2008. He did an interview with ABC News's Jake Tapper today. We've all been trying to figure out where is the Occupy Wall Street movement going. Listen to this comparison from President Obama.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I understand the frustrations that are being expressed in those protests. In some ways they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party. You know, both on the left and the right.

I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren't looking out for them.


KING: Dana Loesch, as somebody who was involved with and associated with the Tea Party movement, is what we're seeing on Wall Street and in other cities across, is it the same thing?

LOESCH: Yes and no. It's the same thing in that I think that some groups, some began as little grass-root factions, but they've been -- they've been hijacked by other groups. I know in St. Louis we had an ACORN offshoot which actually ran the original grassroots founder of the Occupy St. Louis movement straight up out of the movement entirely.

But at the same time it's not because one of the things that the Tea Party stood for was less government, not more government. You can't have a complete debt forgiveness. And some of these demands included a living wage regardless of whether or not an individual is working. You can only have some of those things when you have big government.

And the Tea Party's always stood against big government. Also the Tea Party recognizes, too, you can't go out and vote for the same individuals who are in bed with the very people you're protesting. This president is the Wall Street president. He's received more money, hands down, from Goldman Sachs than anybody else, and I think it's an important distinction.

KING: So Mary Matalin, why is it in the president's interest, or is it, in your view, to try to -- cozy up is the wrong word, but to try to affiliate with himself within -- and express support for Occupy Wall Street?

MATALIN: Well, I think it's in his interest to associate himself with any support in the -- Jake Tapper reported that the difference between the crowds that showed up in the last cycle and the ones that are showing up now are matching the polls. Obama's lost support even among Democrats. He lost independents two years ago.

But this is a short-term strategy. Long term, not a good thing. These Wall Street children, these anti-capitalists are going to come to show the nation what independents don't like. Whether they might have overlapping concerns with Tea Party people, systemic failures in the system, they're rabidly anti-capitalist, and this country is not. This is not a good strategy for him.

KING: Ed Rollins, you're there in New York city, which has been the scene of the largest Occupy Wall Street protest. When we saw the Tea Party protests early on, they're all across the country. My memory is they were bigger -- most of them were, anyway -- than what we've seen from Occupy Wall Street so far.

But we didn't know early on how would it impact, would it matter at the polls? And now we know, of course, the Tea Party was a huge force in 2010. Do you see any evidence on the streets of New York City of the beginning of a movement that will have that kind of punch come 2012?

ROLLINS: I think it's a movement. I don't know it's going to have anywhere near what the Tea Party is. And that's going to be a counter. The Tea Party is going to basically get revved up like this.

But I think what this is, is this president cannot do what a traditional president does in a re-election, which is runs on his record: here's what I've done for you, here is why America's a better place than when I took office. He can't say any of those things.

So what he has to do is he has to run against things. He has to talk and create bogeymen. He has to say that banks are unfair, the corporate Wall Street is unfair, you're not -- basically have jobs because of those people. The Congress want -- the Republicans in the Congress want to do X, Y, and Z. That's bad for you.

And it's all about "You think I'm -- you think I'm bad? They're worse." And that's kind of the campaign that, unfortunately, he's going to have to run.

KING: I want to spend most of our time, we're going to spend the entire next block, talking about the big Republican debate tonight. But Ed, I do want to ask you this.

We showed the pictures of Congresswoman Bachmann earlier on. You two have been in a little back and forth since you left the campaign. And she said this. She said this to "The New York Times": "When it comes to personnel issues, I act professionally and respectful of performer employees. I just assume that's a two-way street. It's disappointing when it's not. I guess I should have done that Google search."

She's trying to say, in criticizing you, that you know, when you're in a -- involved in a campaign you end up in these little wars, shall we call them.

ROLLINS: There's only two...

KING: How do you respond?

ROLLINS: There's only two campaigns I've ever criticized that I've been involved in. I've been involved in hundreds. One was Ross Perot, the day after he fired his entire professional campaign staff. And then he quit the next day. And the other was Katharine Harris, who basically fired everybody in her campaign.

So the bottom line is I've got a lot of candidates who like me.

I like Michele Bachmann. My only issue with her is that she has to win Iowa. That was the strategy when I took her on. That's the strategy that she still has. I have great affection for her. I want her to do well. But she's only going to do well if she stays in Iowa.

Doing immigration issues in Arizona are not going to basically win Iowa for her. Two percent of the country cares about immigration issues. People care about the economy. And she needs to be out doing retail politics in Iowa. Now, that's my only differential with her in the campaign.

Ed Rollins, Mary Matalin, Dana Loesch, stand by. When we come back, our last round and the big question. What's the biggest question? Who has the most at stake in our big CNN Republican presidential debate? You're looking right now as we go to break live inside the hall. Look at that, seven Republican candidates for president getting ready. The debate now is just a little more than an hour away. Stay with us.


KING: The Texas governor, Rick Perry, arriving for tonight's debate. It's just over an hour away, and boy, if anyone has a lot at stake tonight it is Rick Perry. He came into the race. He skyrocketed to the top of the polls among Republican voters. Now, he's gone from a mere 30 percent to the mid-teens. Herman Cain and Mitt Romney now at the top of the pack.

We're back here with Ed Rollins, Dana Loesch and Mary Matalin.

Mary Matalin, to you first. As we watch Governor Perry go into the final preparations, how important is this night to a man who many thought would be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? At the moment, a lot of conservatives are saying can he survive? MATALIN: Well, they're not saying that without looking on the ground. I'm going to say what I said earlier. What he's managing to do on the ground where actual votes are cast, where it takes organization to do it, put out his energy plan, which translates into jobs, which is a sweet spot. He's got an economic plan coming out. He's doing the building blocks in a way that, well, can bring him back to where he needs to be.

Tonight he needs to flush out, talk about the energy plan that he put out, telegraph what's going to be in the upcoming things that he's going to scope out, and just stay chill on it. He doesn't need to respond to everything that he's been attacked on.

KING: Dana, you were harshly critical after the last debate. What is it that Governor Perry needs to do to get you to say, "I'm going to take another look? I'm ready to look again"?

LOESCH: I want to see him be incredibly aggressive, and he needs to be very aggressive in this debate. He let Mitt Romney skate by on the answer for Romney care last debate, which he -- he had him right where he wanted him, and he just kind of released him and let him go. He has to go after Mitt Romney.

And in kind of a way, he also needs to go after Herman Cain, as well, although that may be a double-edged sword. Rick Perry's initial strategy when he first got into this was he kind of ostracized Michele Bachmann, completely ignored her, pushed her to the edge of the periphery. And that, in turn, made everyone look at this as a two-man race. He needs to do that again with Herman Cain. He needs to go after Romney.

KING: And Ed Rollins, Dana makes an important point. This is why I love this and why tonight is so great. Because of the complicated chess this has made -- everybody thought it would be Romney-Kerry, maybe with Bachmann looking for the right. Then Santorum's trying to go for the right. Herman Cain comes out of nowhere.

When you're looking at Rick Perry tonight, and you know No. 1, he's had his own aides quoted in the newspaper saying he needs more sleep; we've had a tired puppy. What's the biggest challenge? Worry about Rick Perry or worry about one of those other guys?

ROLLINS: I think Rick Perry is going to basically connect with voters. And he's a great retail politician. He's won -- over 25 years he's never been beat. He's been governor for ten years, and he just basically needs to really kick it up.

I agree with Mary. He's got a great organization. He's got a lot of smart people around him; he's got money. It is a two-way race.

Herman Cain is a great salesman, basically, who's filled a void. But it's kind of like a horse holder. It's not -- he isn't going to be our nominee. One of these two guys, I think, is going to be our nominee unless someone can upset Perry in Iowa, and then they have another shot at it. But right today he needs to basically sell himself.

KING: But by all of the rules, Ed, and all the campaigns -- you've had a few more than I have -- you're absolutely right. Except I just don't know if the rules matter anymore, if Herman Cain can pull this off in the post-Perot candidate.

So Mary Matalin, on that front, if you look at our new poll, asked Republican voters, who is most likely to win your nomination? Mitt Romney at 51 percent. So a majority of Republicans, they may not love Mitt Romney, but they think he's going to be their nominee.

Then you say who's the most likable candidate in the Republican race? And that's Herman Cain, 34 percent to 29 for Romney, Governor Perry, and 13. I guess my question, Mary, is you know Ed. You respect his political views; you respect -- respect him as a strategist. Are you sure he's right about Herman Cain?

MATALIN: Yes. I not only respect Ed, I -- I'm telling you, and you know this, because you've been there, to get -- everybody underestimates Iowa. They discount it for various reasons. Unless there's a candidate in the race, a la Harkin in 1992, or '88 rather, whenever that was, you have -- whoever wins in Iowa gets a whole bevy of media.

And to get to win in Iowa you have to drag people out of their houses for four hours in the dead of night. It's freezing. The last time I was there, there was an ice storm. You can't do that without an organization.

That's why Ed was right about Michele in Iowa. That's why Perry is pulling together former Romney people and former Pawlenty people, even the guy who was going to run the Christie campaign. You can't underestimate the value of that.

If Perry wins Iowa, we jump to the rest of the contest. And booking (ph) into South Carolina, he has an equally strong team. It's a completely different race.

Ed Rollins and I are saying the same thing. It's a two-man race, and the field for the second man is advantaged on the ground of Perry's race.

KING: Dana Loesch, as somebody who's newer to the process than Mary and Ed, are you sure they're right about Herman Cain? Look, he's not raising enough money. He doesn't have the infrastructure. He's had staff turmoil. In any other year, you'd say there's no way. There's actually no way. I assume they're right, but are you sure?

LOESCH: Well, I kind of agree with them, because he doesn't have the fund-raising apparatus in place to really go for the long haul and to be the second man in this, to be the non-Romney. He just doesn't have -- he just doesn't have that -- that group, that organization in place, and he definitely doesn't have the funding.

Perry is leading with funding right now. He outraised Romney by, I think, like $3 or $4 million just last quarter. So that's the kind of money that Herman Cain would need to raise in order to stay viable. Because when you raise money, a lot of people have this misconception about fund-raising. When you can raise funds, you can raise votes. It's a little similar in that.

And I just don't know if Cain can do it. I don't know if he can go long haul.

KING: Dana Loesch, Ed Rollins, Mary Matalin, appreciate your insights tonight. We're little more than an hour away from a big debate. And it is a complicated chess match. Herman Cain and Mitt Romney atop the national pack. Governor Perry trying to reassert himself tonight. Other candidates, as well. Watch for Rick Santorum. He's going to go after Herman Cain quite hard. Ron Paul promised to do the same.

A lot at stake tonight. The eighth debate of the Republican campaign. Ron Paul making his way in right now. Don't go anywhere. The debate is one hour away, and to get you there, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now. Erin, take it away.