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Damage Control for Rick Perry; Penn State Fires Joe Paterno; Interview With Montana Senator Jon Tester

Aired November 10, 2011 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Penn State tries to start over. The university president and its legendary football coach are fired for their roles in a blossoming child abuse scandal. At least eight young boys were abused, yet students protested Paterno's firing as unjust.



CROWD: Penn State!


CROWD: Penn State!


KING: But up first tonight, the Rick Perry apology tour, or stepped in it tour. Call it what you will, but after another big debate gaffe, this bordering on humiliating, the Texas governor is racing from TV studio to TV studio hoping to control the damage.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Obviously I stepped in it. But again, I go -- I have my moment of humor with it and then I press on.


KING: If Perry can have his moment of humor, well, I guess maybe we can, too. I'm not sure if you're a Monty Python fan, but I am. And watching Governor Perry today reminded me a lot of this.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Yes. He says he's not dead.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: He isn't? UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, he will be soon. He's very ill.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm getting better.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: No, you're not. You will be stone dead in a moment.


KING: My experience tell me voters sometimes have a different verdict than the pundits. Bill Clinton circa early 1992 comes to mind or Bill Clinton circa Monica Lewinsky, declared dead, finished over and over again, yet somehow able to win and then complete two terms as president. Be careful in listening to the pundits. But that was then, this is now.

For Perry, a Twitterverse and blogosphere rush to suggest this 51-second debate debacle would be the end of an already-struggling candidacy.


PERRY: It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone, Commerce, Education, and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see.



PERRY: Oh, five, OK.

PAUL: Yes.


PERRY: So Commerce, Education, and the...


PERRY: EPA, there you go. No.




JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC: Seriously, is the EPA the one you were talking about?

PERRY: No, sir. No, sir. We were talking about the agencies of government -- the EPA needs to be rebuilt. There's no doubt about that.

HARWOOD: But you can't -- but you can't name the third one? PERRY: The third agency of government, I would -- I would do away with the Education, the...



PERRY: Commerce. And let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry.


PERRY: Oops.


KING: Oops from Governor Perry. And then it took just seconds from @AnnCoulter, "Poor Rick Perry just forgot how to win an election."

And @MurphyMike, the veteran GOP ad man, "Off screen, Dr. Paul is sadly administering last rites to Rick Perry."

More and more and more of those, but you get the idea. The Perry campaign knew immediately it faced a major damage control challenge and that the candidate himself would have to lead it first in the post-debate spin room.


PERRY: Yes, I stepped in it, man. Yes, it was embarrassing, of course, it was.


KING: And then, a full-court press on the morning news shows and beyond.


PERRY: I'm kind of proof-positive of it every day that people make mistakes. I had a brain freeze, as you said, and failed to remember an agency of government. I think I made an error last night. I stepped in it. If we're electing a debater in chief, don't elect me. I don't mind saying clearly that I stepped in it last night.


KING: Iowa votes in just 54 days, and it's near impossible tonight to fine a Republican who disagrees with this statement. If Governor Perry is to get back on his feet, he better find a way to win the kickoff caucuses. That is doable?

Tonight, let's start with the conversation with CNN contributors Mary Matalin and David Gergen. Mary, as the Republican strategist in the room here, we all have bad moments. Rick Perry could not afford after several stumbles in earlier debates this one. Is self-deprecating humor the path back or what does he have to do to prove this isn't the end?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I'm with you on the Monty Python theory. The punditocracy has become corners.

We keep declaring these guys dead and they're Lazarus-like, or they're legions of Lazarus. We have declared Newt dead several times, we have declared Cain dead, we have declared Perry dead. And as not only Monty Python, and you demonstrated Clinton's comeback. They can and they do come back.

It's never the act. David Gergen actually taught me this. It's how you respond to your mistakes. And in each case, each of these guys in their Lazarus moments responded, went right back to their strengths. Of course, he can do it. And any of these guys could come back until Mitt Romney breaks out, and so far he's not doing that, despite his stellar debate performances.

KING: The question is, and we will get to Governor Romney, the question is, how many times can you fall down? I'm a long believer in two theories. One, Life's not about falling down, it's how you get and up, and, two, don't believe the smart people in Washington. The voters decide the elections, not the alleged smart people in Washington.

However, David Gergen, if we look the polling, this is the "USA Today" Gallup poll, if you go back in August, just the middle of August, Rick Perry was at 29 percent. He's dropped to 11 percent. And I suspect after last night, he's not going up.

Does he reach a point at which -- especially now it's not just he has a problem, he has people in front of him. With 54 days, it's hard if you imagine a horse track to get around Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and then get your shot at Mitt Romney.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. This was a moment that John Cleese would have enjoyed very much. There's no question about that.

And I -- coming out of the whole Monty Python tradition. I do think that he's helped himself a lot by the good sportsmanship he's showing. He's treating it with humor and whatever else happens to him in the campaign, I don't think he ought to leave the campaign with his head down.

But his problem is, this was a hit below the waterline because it plays directly into the most important narrative that is being used against him, and that is good governor, created a lot of jobs, seems very strong, but is he up to the job? Is he smart enough to be president?

This job, after all, is a very complex job, as Mary knows so well. You do need smart people in there. And this just raises, once again, and I in a way, because of the humor that others are inventing around it, it's going to continue and linger in the public mind. I have a very hard time seeing him catch fire now after this and winning that Iowa caucuses. I will be amazed if he can. Can he stay? Yes, he can stay in. Can he raise money? I doubt it. Can he win Iowa? I very much doubt that.

KING: Let's bring into the conversation Jeff Zeleny, the national political corner for "The New York Times."

Jeff, you have spent a lot of time in Iowa. I was just out there recently. Another thing, the role in the race Perry wanted was the conservative alternative to Romney. That is essentially the challenge at the moment. You know Mitt Romney is there and is going to be there and we're looking for who will emerge as the conservative challenger.

One person many conservatives take a cue from is the conservative South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. Listen to him on the morning after about how he rated the debate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you had to pick one that you would put up against President Obama in a debate setting right now, who would you choose?

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, Chris, there are really several of them. I think I would have to say last night that Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney excelled in a lot of ways. They had real clarity of visions and policies.


KING: Beyond implied in that, Jeff Zeleny, is that Rick Perry did not have the clear vision and a strong debate performance.

Your assessment the day after?

JEFF ZELENY, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I don't think voters are directly looking for someone who can compete with Barack Obama on the debating stage. That's sort of an underlying thing.

But one thing that Governor Perry has had going for him is that a lot of Iowa Republicans I have talked to in recent weeks want to like him. They want him to become a better candidate. They have liked many aspects of him but he's making it really hard to follow through on that.

But several Iowa Republicans I talked to this morning and this afternoon who watched the debate said they're still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in most regards because they have seen him personally one-on-one. His burden now is to plant himself in Iowa first and some other early voting states, advertise more, which he's going to do, and really try and present himself as different than the person you saw on the debating stage.

In Iowa that's possible because you don't need to see that many Republicans to sort of stand out in the caucuses. But it's very, very, very difficult to sort of change the image that he's created for himself. So his campaign realizes what trouble he's in and he does not control his own destiny now, no question about it.

KING: Mary, that in many ways, Jeff just hit on what I will call the Perry paradox. I was out in Iowa last week. I spent some time with him. I interviewed him on camera. But I also spent about 40 minutes in a car ride with him just shooting the breeze off camera, just getting to know him better.

And he reminds me -- and he won't like me -- of Bob Kerrey. Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president back in the '92 election, on paper was a great candidate, every now and then would give a speech connecting his Vietnam service to politics that would knock your socks off and blow you away.

Then he would get up on the big stage in New Hampshire and just flat-out blow it. What is it that some candidates -- just call it a brain freeze, call it whatever -- they just get locked when the big moment arrives?

MATALIN: There's a huge, huge, huge difference between Perry and Kerrey, if you will, which is, and this is why Iowan voters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt, it is his record. It's the record they want to see.

It's the record that no other candidate has. So all through this Iowa -- none of his debate performances were stellar, but in each and every case, you would get a Perry press release and they had lined up another county chairman or they had lined up another supporter who had been with a previous campaign.

It's because of his record. And they're willing to take this gamble that his record is going to trump his rhetoric and sooner or later he will be able to string a sentence together sufficiently. I thought his recovery effort this morning, as David said, was spot on, be funny, and stay on message, and he did.

KING: We will see where this goes from here, five debates between now and the Iowa caucuses, I believe is the right number.

Jeff Zeleny, David Gergen, Mary Matalin, appreciate your help tonight.

And next, you won't want to miss this story. One of the inspectors who helped uncover the horrendous abuses in the handling of the remains of U.S. war dead and a U.S. senator who is now asking if our heroes were abused, why hasn't anyone been fired?


KING: Imagine the pain of losing one off at war in Iraq or Afghanistan. And imagine later learning some of that loved one's remains were lost because of incompetence or incinerated and then dumped without your knowledge at a landfill. A new government report says top official as Dover Air Force Base mortuary knew about lost remains and other major problems, but did nothing, nothing, to fix the mess.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today promised to make sure now those problems get fixed.


LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: All Americans, including myself, are justifiably disturbed by the reports of mismanagement at Dover Port Mortuary that came to light this week.


KING: And joining us now is Carolyn Lerner. She's with that Office of U.S. Special Counsel, the agency that investigated these abuses.

Thank you for being here.

When I read this, I get outraged. So I can only imagine how the families of the fallen must feel. It's clearly insensitive behavior, it's incompetent behavior. This is not a new problem. Why? Why is this so bad, and why have these heroes been so mistreated?

CAROLYN LERNER, OFFICE OF U.S. SPECIAL COUNSEL: I think there are a couple issues.

One is the failure of the Air Force to notify the families. The Air Force could have notified the families the minute they found out there was a problem. They chose not to. Our office, the Office of Special Counsel, asked them repeatedly why haven't you notified the families yet? And their response was, well, some of them have blogs, they have Web sites, they might go to the media. So they didn't trust the families with the news.

KING: They didn't trust to cover their own you-know-whats, as opposed to giving families the information.

As you know, General Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, he has a very different take on this. I want you to listen to his explanation, his explanation of why some of the families weren't told.


GEN. NORTON SCHWARTZ, AIR FORCE CHIEF OF STAFF: We waited until it was clear that the Office of Special Counsel was going to render their report. We got 48 hours' notice. And we acted upon that notice.


KING: Is that right?

LERNER: I believe this is a complete mischaracterization. We were hoping, we had assumed that the Air Force notified the families a year or two ago. They...

KING: They should notify them anyway. They shouldn't be waiting for some report that essentially calls their conduct on the carpet. If your view, in anyone's view, as soon as they knew there was a problem, they should have told people?

LERNER: Of course not.

And they said to us they knew that our report to the president and to Congress was imminent and they said to us, could you give us 48 hours so we can notify the families? And again, we expressed our surprise that they hadn't yet informed the families. It turns out we think that they wanted 48 hours so that they could inform the media and get to the media first before the families.

KING: And when you go through some of the specifics here, remains lost, pieces, forgive the language, of fallen heroes lost, some incinerated and then dumped in a landfill, who thought that was a good idea?

LERNER: Well, I do want to be very clear that the incineration and dumping of the body parts was not part of our report. That came out. We just found out about that ourselves yesterday. But I can't imagine anyone thought that was a good idea.

KING: But it happened.

LERNER: Apparently it did.

KING: What is the culture? If it's -- it's not a good idea. It's insensitive, it's horrific and worse. So then how does it happen? What is the culture?

I mean, they are overwhelmed. This has been a very tough 10-year period, Afghanistan and Iraq. It doesn't excuse gross insensitivity and gross incompetence. But then how does it happen if no one thinks it's a good idea?

LERNER: Well, I think part of the problem is lack of accountability. Unless the three whistle-blowers who came to our agency had come forward we never would have known about all of these problems. It takes someone who is there on the ground, who sees what's happening to actually report it and make it public.

If the whistle-blowers hadn't come forward, we never would have known about this.

KING: And yet they were not celebrated. They have been punished.

LERNER: They were retaliated against. Two individuals were fired after the news came to light. Our agency was able to get them reinstated. But the three whistle-blowers who came forward to report this wrongdoing still have retaliation complaints pending.

KING: For a family, a military family, a neighbor of a military family, somebody watching us right now who is cringing at what has happened in the past, what is happening today?

Could this be happening still, or are you convinced that the alarms have been appropriately sounded, attention has reached the right levels, that it will not happen and that these heroes will be treated with respect and dignity?

LERNER: Certainly that's the message that we're here hearing how from the Air Force.

And I think we should be very grateful to the whistle-blowers who came forward who brought this all to light, because it's through the public disclosure of these types of misdeeds that we get accountability.

KING: You say that's what you're hearing from the Air Force, but you just disputed what the Air Force chief of staff said publicly about the chain of notification, the chain of events. So I want to ask you again, do you trust what you're -- you're hearing it from the Air Force. Do you trust it? Do you think the secretary of defense gets this message?

Do you think the president of the United States needs to get this message so that this doesn't happen again?

LERNER: I think they do need to get the message and I think they will be need to be held accountable looking forward.

We know it happened in the past. We can't predict what's going to happen in the future, but we can make sure that they're held accountable so that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

KING: Carolyn Lerner, appreciate your time.

LERNER: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

Let's dig deeper now with a United States senator who believes the Air Force is not moving quickly enough and forcefully enough to deal with these abuses.

Montana Democrat Jon Tester, a member of the Veteran Affairs Committee, raised this concern in a letter to the Air Force leadership -- quote -- "It is my understanding that the supervisors who allowed these events to occur were not fired. If that is accurate, why were they not fired?"

Senator Tester joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, it sounds like you have little doubt the Air Force is not taking this seriously enough and moving quickly and boldly enough.

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: Well, John, as you well know, taking care of remains of the folks who have given their lives for this country is a sacred duty. And the Air Force, they have blown it. And the public trust is gone. I'm going to make the recommendation that the supervisors within that chain of command that oversaw this happening, they all need to be replaced. This is something that's totally unacceptable.

KING: And if you read the report, it's hard not to get outraged. And you assume the families are even more outraged, remains lost, remains incinerated and dumped in a landfill.

You're pushing for answers. And one of the questions is that sometimes at times like this big organizations circle the wagons, if you will, and try to protect their own.

I want you to listen here to the new defense secretary, Leon Panetta. He's only been on the job a couple of months. He says he was briefed on this and he sounds convinced, listen here, Senator, that they understand the urgency.


PANETTA: When I came into this office in July, in one of the first meetings I had as secretary of defense, I was briefed by Secretary Donley and General Schwartz on their investigation into Dover.

They were forthcoming with me. It was clear that they took these allegations seriously and that they were committed to strengthening the department's handling of this most sacred and solemn task.


KING: Do you buy that, though, that they take it that seriously if nobody has been fired?

TESTER: Well, the proof is going to be in the pudding. And you're exactly right, John. Folks haven't been fired yet.

They need to move, they need to move quickly, and they need to move very fairly on this. The truth is, the people who were responsible need -- I mean, look, there's no excuses here. So the people who are responsible, the supervisors that are responsible, cut them loose, move on, make sure that this never happens again.

If anybody should get this, it's the folks that serve in the military. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that. And I have worked with Secretary Panetta, I think he's a good fellow, but he really needs to drop the hammer on this, move forward, move quickly. Congress is watching. The American people's watching. And, most importantly, the people who have been done wrong by these acts are watching.

KING: You believe these guys should be fired. I don't think there's anybody out there listening who will disagree with you.

However, I want you to listen to General Norton Schwartz. He's the Air Force chief of staff, saying here in one of the cases the supervisor involved, this is the course he decided was appropriate. Listen.


SCHWARTZ: The uniformed officer received a letter of reprimand. We established an unfavorable information file. We removed him from the command list and his anticipated job as a group commander at Shaw Air Force Base was red-lined. This is not a trivial sanction.


KING: The general says not a trivial sanction. I get the impression you don't think it's enough.

TESTER: I think just a reprimand letter or a transfer within the organization, it truly is not enough, if we're going to make sure that this never happens again.

KING: And as we speak tonight, Senator, the big question is for a family out there who has a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife serving overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else, who risks the ultimate sacrifice, is, can it happen again? Could it happen again? Are you confident as we speak tonight the answer's no?

TESTER: It depends on how this is handled going into the future. But I think the answer can be no to that depending how this incident is handled as we move into the forward.

If it is handled quickly and seriously, I think that we can assure folks it will never happen again. But if we lollygag around about it, then we're going to have more problems and I don't think -- don't think -- I know that's not acceptable.

KING: Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, appreciate your time tonight, sir.

TESTER: Thanks, John.

KING: Thank you.

And still to come here, tonight's number isn't three but it is something Rick Perry can't afford to forget.

And Joe Paterno's out of a job and now out of a big national honor. The latest on the Penn State child sex abuse scandal next.


KING: Last night, the legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was told to pack up immediately.

And tonight there's word his nomination for one of the nation's highest civilian honors is collapsing. Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey announced a short time ago they no longer support Paterno as a condition for a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This is a sudden fall from grace for a coach who over the past 46 seasons has become an icon on campus and across college sports. But Paterno and Penn State's president were axed as the university tries now to sever ties with any top officials who can be accused of not taking seriously enough a major child sex abuse scandal on campus.

Longtime top Paterno deputy Jerry Sandusky faces charges he abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. Two other top former Penn State officials are charged with lying about what they knew and with failing to report child sex abuse to the police.

Penn State's new interim football coach today called it a bittersweet moment.


TOM BRADLEY, PENN STATE HEAD FOOTBALL COACH: First off, I grieve for the victims. I grieve for the families. I'm deeply saddened by that. It's with great emotion that I say that.

And, you know, the football part, we will get working on that right away.


KING: Protests and some rioting took place on campus last night, as many students complained Paterno was treated unjustly.

Sara Ganim of "The Patriot-News" of Harrisburg joins us live again tonight from State College, Pennsylvania.

And, Sara, let's start. Governor Tom Corbett just wrapped up a press conference moments ago. What are the big headlines out of that?

SARA GANIM, "THE PATRIOT-NEWS": Well, I think the biggest headline that came out of that was that he said that the A.G. will look into -- the attorney general will look into Jerry Sandusky's charity, The Second Mile, and what they knew and when they knew it.

The Second Mile was founded by Jerry Sandusky in 1977, and the grand jury's presentment on the very first page says that he used that charity to find victims that he could abuse.

KING: Now we have the new interim coach, coach Bradley. There have been questions, since many of Paterno's deputies have been around the program a long time, is there any indication, any inkling, any suspicion that coach Bradley was somehow aware at least of the allegations?

GANIM: At the press conference he -- he was asked that question several times. He said no comment several times, said that was the advice of counsel, that he couldn't comment, especially to the question of whether or not he testified before the grand jury. But he was pressed about it several more times, and he did -- he did finally say that he never knew about the 1998 report. Remember he came on board in 1999. And then later on he was asked again about 2002 and said simply, no. KING: One of the big debates has been, especially after the demonstration, some would say some rioting last night, as whether the students are somehow sending an insensitive message to the families of the victims. But I want to read something from the article you had in the newspaper today, quoting Ben Andreozzi, basically the attorney advising some of Coach Sandusky's alleged victims.

Says, quote, "The board of trustees got it wrong. They should have consulted the victims before making a decision on Mr. Paterno. They should have considered these victims watch TV and are aware of the students' reaction and may not want to be associated with the downfall of Mr. Paterno. The school instead elected to do what it felt was in its own best interest at the time. Isn't that what put the school in this position in the first place?"

So is it your sense that most of the victims, while they want a thorough investigation, did not immediately, at least, want Coach Paterno fired?

GANIM: I think what you're seeing here is a reaction to the way that people are reacting to this. And basically the victims that I've talked to have said that they -- they would rather this be a focus on them -- on the victims and what happened to them than on the scandal and kind of the circus that's surrounding it.

And I don't think that, you know, the sister that I talked to yesterday and then the statement from Attorney Andreozzi, who is believed to represent victim four, you know, that -- those statements kind of bring you to believe that maybe they -- they don't agree with Coach Paterno's sudden departure.

And you know, you've got to remember how much -- how loved he was on campus. And I think it's a sad day for everybody here. And it's kind of hard just to -- to grasp it and to realize that, when we woke up this morning, that he wasn't the coach here any more.

KING: Sarah, thank you for your help reporting this dramatic story on the Penn State campus. We appreciate it. We'll keep in touch.

Now up next here, today's dramatic about-face on Wall Street. We'll ask chief business correspondent Ali Velshi what's ahead for your money.


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

House Republicans announced the White House has agreed to turn over some documents demanded under subpoena by the House panel investigating the collapse of solar energy firm Solyndra. Its bankruptcy has taxpayers -- that means you -- on the hook for about a half billion dollars.

Bowing to public pressure, the Obama administration today put off for at least a year a decision on the route for a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.

A rare victory for the president today on Capitol Hill. The Senate unanimously approved tax credits for businesses that hire U.S. veterans.

Also on the jobs front, today's rating of first-time unemployment claims came in at a seven-month low. That news helped push the Dow Industrials up 112 points, gaining back about one-third of the ground lost yesterday. The broader NASDAQ and S&P 500 closed up slightly. Investors remain skittish, though, over Europe's debt crisis.

And so, Ali Velshi, a big tumble yesterday, flat a little up today. Is this what we are to expect for the next days and weeks?

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, absolutely. Until we have some credible solution to what's going on in Europe, it's really quite serious. Europe's the biggest trading partner for the United States, and they're generally the developed, wealthy countries that buy some of the products and services that we make. If they are in recession -- and they're very close to it, by the way -- they won't buy that stuff.

But as far as the markets go, John, I said earlier today I want to punch the Dow in the face, because it really just upsets people, gets them worried about it, and it gets them away from the strategy that they need to employ. I don't want anybody's head in the sand. You have to understand what the trends are. But ultimately, it makes people sell their stocks, and then they sit and they miss the ups. It's upsetting.

KING: You and Christine Roman try to explain some of that in your new book here, "How to Speak Money." Christine said earlier today, look at Italy. Look at Greece, and you see the future of the United States. Is that right?

VELSHI: It probably overstated it a little bit. Somebody was saying that to Christine and she was relating on TV that she had heard it.

I'll tell you the differences. In the United States the cost of borrowing money is very, very low, largely because we're the cleanest dirty shirt in the laundry box at the moment. So the United States can borrow money at under 2 percent for ten years. Italy, costs them more than 7 percent. Greece, above 9 percent, Portugal. So that's why we're not in the same place; we're not in a debt crisis. And we can print money.

So no, we're not in the same place, but when we were having the debt crisis that you and I were talking about endlessly on TV, that's what people were working at. They were saying why can't these guys get their act together? This seems like a simple solution. It's never simple when it's your country.

KING: Sober but smart advice. Ali Velshi, thanks.

VELSHI: Thanks, John. KING: Thank you, sir.

Tonight's "Number" has nothing to do with Wall Street, but you might say it has everything to do with a declining political stock. What is it? Well, the number is five. That's the number of Republican debates between now and the Iowa caucuses.

You'll see three in Des Moines and Sioux Falls, I believe, is the other one. Three in Iowa in December. One on Saturday in South Carolina. CNN has a debate right here in Washington, D.C., next month. Five debates between now and the Iowa caucuses.

Remember, Rick Perry couldn't remember three government agencies to cut last night. His rebound strategy depends on these five debates.

When we come back, what about the Perry "step in it" tour? How did he do? We'll talk to one of our reporters who was right there after the debate. And remember, Rick Perry's big gaffe came on Herman Cain's first big debate night since those sexual harassment allegations surfaced. That's next.


KING: "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at top of the hour. Erin's here with a preview. And you're going to sit down with a CEO who takes issue with our city's great super committee.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. We hope it's a great super committee, right? We want them to be the superheroes.

But yes, we're going to talk to the CEO of a manufacturing company. Dave Roberts from Carlisle says he's not going it hire, John, until the super committee does its job. It's just proof of how important these 12 people are. They may get mired in politics, but it is so much more important to our country's economy.

Then we're going to talk about Cain cashing in. His campaign claims to have made $9 million since October 1. That is a whoa. We're going to talk about that.

And the Penn State scandal. We have on Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who was abused by a coach, he says, more than 300 times. And he's going to talk about why it took him so long to come forward to shed some light on the scandal we're dealing with now.

Back to you.

KING: A great member of my Boston Bruins, Erin. Looking forward to it. We'll see you soon.

When you step in it, to accept Rick Perry's description of last night's debate, the challenge is to step out of it, well, as quickly as possible. For Governor Perry, that effort began immediately after the debate ended in the so-called spin room.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I stepped in it, man. Yes, it was embarrassing; of course it was. You know, when -- but here's what's more important. People understand that our principles, our conservative principles are what matter.


KING: CNN's Peter Hamby was on hand for the Perry spin cycle last night and joins us now from Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Peter, not unprecedented but pretty rare, especially for the major candidates to go into the spin room. Give us a sense of how quickly they realized they had a very big problem and they needed their candidate to take the lead trying to fix it.

PETER HAMBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. I mean, Rick Perry has not been in a single spin room this year. Usually, you're right, a top tier -- perceived top-tier candidate doesn't come in to present the case for himself. Usually the sort of lower tiered candidates do that.

We were in the spin room waiting for one of his senior advisers, someone like Ray Sullivan, who's communications director, for example, to come in and sort of explain things away. And it really took us by surprise that Perry was the one that came in.

I've got to say, though, if you're a reporter in that spin room -- or excuse me, in that press file, if you're anyone in the country looking at Twitter, kind of looking at the political class online at that moment, you knew immediately this was a huge problem because it opened up all sorts of doubts about Rick Perry and his readiness for this fight.

So, yes, the Perry campaign knew immediately that they had an issue, and Rick Perry was absolutely swamped when he came into the press file last night, John.

KING: And you mentioned the so-called smart political class. Sometimes very smart, sometimes not so much, if you go back through the history books. And what Washington says doesn't always happen when the people of Iowa or New Hampshire vote.

What is your sense -- split your reporting among the establishment types and your contacts with conservative activists tonight who don't necessarily listen to what the punditry says. What is their sense, the people at the grassroots level, of Perry's survivability?

HAMBY: Yes, across the board, I think you're right about the sometimes disconnect between the beltway and the rest of the country. If you talk to grassroots people, kind of county chairs, activists, Tea Party folks in Iowa and South Carolina, those two states where Perry really needs to do well, they're amazed by this, and a lot of people are soft on Perry at this point. You would not be surprised if the Romney campaign got a lot of calls today from former Perry donors. You know, the donor class, this raises big problems for Rick Perry. How does Rick Perry walk into a room with donors? He's on a fund-raising swing through Tennessee right now. He's going to Mississippi next week to raise money.

He's got to walk into the room and still say that "I'm a credible candidate after that moment." So, you know, both among donors, I can tell you from who I've talked to and grassroots activists, this has really opened up a lot of questions. And it's going to freeze Rick Perry in the polls and maybe drop him a little bit, John.

KING: He'll have to polish up those cowboy boots quite shiny. Peter Hamby, joining us from Michigan tonight. Peter, appreciate the reporting.

And Governor Perry's big gaffe came as Herman Cain took the stage for the first time since facing alleges of sexual harassment. A lot to discuss with GOP strategist John Feehery, Democratic guru Donna Brazile, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Before we start the conversation, I want to go back and play a snippet. It was 51 seconds, Governor Perry's gaffe, and it was a pretty good gaffe. Let's just play the beginning of it so people get a sense of, forgive me, Governor, this little deer-in-the-headlights moment.


PERRY: Three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see.


KING: John Feehery, especially to forget energy for a guy who's -- most of his economic speeches have been about the importance of energy, you know, all candidates make mistakes. But could this candidate when the knock on him was he can't debate, could he afford that one? How do you recover?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, he's made several big mistakes. The first mistake, the first debate talked about the Ponzi scheme. Then we had problems with the immigration issue. And so his problem is he used to be one of the credible candidates. You could say credibility is important. He could possibly win. He's electable. The problem is that each one of the debates credibility's diminished. He's got a heck of a hard time raising money now from all those big donors. I think he's absolutely right: the donors are going to go somewhere else. Peter Hamby's right. And I think it's going to be a real problem for Rick Perry.

KING: And I want to show you guys, Donna and Gloria, and John, I just want to go over and say things. Here's the dynamic of the Republican race from the beginning. You get my friend to work here. You know Mitt Romney, he's got the money. He's got the establishment across the country. He's your establishment candidate. He's one of the front-runners and not the front-runner.

Then we've had this roller coaster of who's the anybody-but- Romney candidate? It was this guy, Donald Trump for a while. He was flirting with running. Maybe he was going to be the alternative. See you later, bye.

Then it was Michele Bachmann. After a great debate performance in June, she took that spot. She was the conservative alternative. Then she has plummeted. Good-bye.

Then it was Governor Perry who, when he got into the race, jumped immediately not only into a tie but passing Romney in the national polls. And he was it, the great conservative hope. As John Feehery noted, early debates, some policy issue likes immigration, the HPV vaccine. See you later, bye.

And at the moment, it's this guy, and the question is can he survive? The character question, it's about him. Herman Cain, now the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

And the question is how does this play out? Fifty-four days until Iowa, if you look there. Cain and Romney in a tie. Perry way down here. I can't find any Republican who says he better get up here and win Iowa or come in a damn close second if he wants to survive. That's 54 days out. Close that one.

Then 61 days away, Romney is the runway favorite in the state of New Hampshire.

And then South Carolina comes after that. I'm going to stop here. Romney, Cain, Perry again down here in fourth place.

As I walk back over, Donna, you're a Democrat, but you've been through a lot of these nominating contests on the Republican side. If Romney's up here, and Perry's here, he's got Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain. They're trying to somehow pass on the track. Do you see it as feasible?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Look, John, there's so much volatility on the Republican side. I'm not surprised that Rick Perry stepped on his message. He stepped on his economic message with going back to the birth controversy. But you know, it's very difficult for a Democrat to sit down right now and say, "OK, it's Romney." It may be Romney. But who else? Rick Perry stepped on his message yesterday. It was embarrassing, but I don't think it's life- threatening.

KING: And Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who's a friend of most of us at the table. John, you're a friend of Peter. You're a Republican. You can be a good friend of Peter. He's a good guy.

He just wrote a memo, one year out, Gloria, and he's talking about Romney, and Romney is the frontrunner, but essentially is Peter's conclusion. "In a primary head to head against Herman Cain, if you had a one on one, the GOP runoff becomes a dead heat, 49 percent for Romney, 48 percent for Cain. The fact that Herman Cain has almost half of the primary vote even after the allegations of sexual abuse surfaced underscores that the challenge to Romney is nailing down the Tea Party base. Also shows the down-to-earth, plainspoken approach of Cain ties into the mood of the moment.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It does. Cain is likable. You know, Cain is the most likable candidate out there. And that's one of the reasons he remains high in the field.

And I think while all of this is good for Romney, right -- it's pretty good to have all these people self-destructing before your very eyes -- if he doesn't start increasing in the polls pretty soon among all Republicans above that sort of 25 percent threshold, people are going to say, "Wait a minute. Why isn't Mitt Romney able to take advantage of all these problems the other campaigns are having?"

KING: Winning sometimes helps. We'll have to see. Everybody stay put. More on Herman's Cain's -- Herman Cain's performance in the debate last night and his image. And also a fascinating question, a fascinating question. He's been in office for nearly three years now. But ask voters what President Obama stands for and many draw a blank. That's a big problem. Next.


KING: The electorate viewed Ronald Reagan as conservative and as an optimist. Bill Clinton, he was tough and a fighter for the middle class. George W. Bush liked to call himself a wartime president and the decider.

What about Barack Obama one year before election day? What do people think? Well, you don't get a good answer, according to Democratic pollster Peter Hart. He says one year our, that's a problem.

Listen to this, a new memo from Peter Hart tonight. "The challenge here is not whether a specific element is wrong with Barack Obama's image but that he does not have one single image. He is everyone and no one. Even during the first year, voters had an uncertainty about how strong his backbone was. And in 2010, it was a sense of whether he connected with them. The challenge is not that people are put off by him but that they are not certain whom he is."

Interesting place to rejoin the conversation. Republican John Feehery, Democrat Donna Brazile, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger. For a president running for reelection, having a vague identity with the American people is a problem.

BORGER: It is a problem. And the irony here, to me, is that we have seen more of Barack Obama than we've seen of most of our other recent presidents. I mean, during his first year in office, he seemed to be at every ribbon cutting. And people were complaining, you know, maybe you're seeing him too much. But we know him less well, even though he's been so visible to the American people... KING: How can that be, Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, you know, John, I think it's very difficult in this new technology age where people can tweet and, you know, and then demonize you on one hand, affable.

Look, I think President Obama is likable. He's pragmatic. He's honest. Think of it this way, John. If you came over, you and I could really get down with some ribs and some chicken. But if Obama came over, I would definitely go with a salad.

BORGER: Well, I'm not coming over with you then.

KING: Peter Hart describes this as a problem for the president in the sense that you want to have a clear, single identity. You want people to think of you as one thing. Is it also, though, a flip side of the problem, if you're trying to go after the president in deciding where to hit him, to pick one vulnerability?

FEEHERY: Well, I think where Republicans will hit him is largely on the economy. Has it worked? Has what he's done worked for me but worked for the middle class, worked for people out of work, and the answer is no, it hasn't worked.

So I think the lack of identity, the lack of strong leadership works against President Obama. If he's out there -- if he's out there really vetoing bills, saying the Republicans stand down, getting really involved in negotiations, showing strong leadership, putting his name on the line, he'd be a strong leader.

But then unfortunately, that's not what's going on. He's going to be in Bali when the super committee's supposed to report. That's not strong leadership.

BORGER: But if he runs against Mitt Romney, he's going to say people don't know who Mitt Romney is and what he stands for.

KING: Well, let's...

BRAZILE: The day before Veterans Day, I think everybody will remember bin Laden is dead.

KING: That's -- that's an excellent point to make, but we'll see if foreign policy matters in the election.

Last night's debate, Rick Perry's gaffe is what we're all talking about. But it was Herman Cain's first debate since all these allegations about possible sexual harassment back in his days as a chief lobbyist for the restaurant industry surfaced. Listen to Herman Cain.

First he said he would not be tried -- he would not allow himself to be tried in the court of public opinion. And then he said, based on his fundraising, $9 million or so in the last month, he thinks that people are voting with their wallets. Listen.


HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Over the last nine days, the voters have voted with their ballots (ph). And they're saying they don't care about the character assassination. They care about leadership and getting this economy growing and all the other problems we face.


KING: He also offered an apology today. He said he was apologizing because reporters kept asking about it during a discussion about repealing Obama care, saying this.


CAIN: Our legislation has already been written, HR-3000. In the previous Congress, it was HR-3400. And what that does, it's already been written. We didn't hear about it in the previous -- the previous Congress because Princess Nancy sent it to committee, and it stayed there. It never came out.


KING: Princess Nancy, a funny line for most Republicans. I'm not sure a guy facing what he's facing should be saying that.

BORGER: I don't think it was particularly smart. He was sort of forced to apologize, gave a half-hearted apology. But, you know, first rule of politics, when you're in a hole, stop digging. I think he dug himself a little bit in again.

KING: Has he dug himself out?

FEEHERY: That's a good question. I think that, you know, he has -- with the Republican base that has such a distrust of the national media, he's still going to have strong support.

But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, is he a credible candidate for president? I think a lot of Republicans are going to say, "Well, I'm not sure how credible he is."

BRAZILE: Disrespectful and mean to women and that was -- he owes Nancy Pelosi an apology.

KING: Donna, we'll give you the last word. We'll see you right here tomorrow night.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.