Return to Transcripts main page


Republicans Debate National Security in D.C.; Interview With New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte

Aired November 22, 2011 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening.

Tonight, we're broadcasting from DAR Constitution Hall. That's just a few steps from the White House and the site of today's big Republican debate, this one dedicated to critical national security debate.

These debates are proving to be a defining force in the ever- changing Republican race. And tonight's comes exactly six weeks before Iowans caucus and cast the first official votes of the 2012 cycle. When those and later votes are cast, there will be one issue that trumps all others, trust.

Picking a president is a gamble. And part of your decision- making comes down to a gut-level judgment about trust. Tonight, one of the leading Republican candidates, if not the leading Republican candidate, is failing the trust test.

Sure, all politicians shade the truth and spin the facts, but what we're about to show you, the first paid television ad of the Romney for president campaign, crosses the line. It is reprehensible in any campaign, but all the more so in this one because of the profound challenges facing the country. Watch and listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need a rescue plan for the middle class. We need to provide relief for homeowners. It's going to take a new direction. If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose, lose, lose.


KING: One more time, just that last snippet from the president.


OBAMA: If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose, lose, lose.


KING: Powerful stuff, right? Especially with high unemployment and sluggish economic growth. Yes, powerful stuff if it were honest, fair, contextual. But it is none of those things. Listen here to then Senator Obama late in the 2008 campaign.


OBAMA: Senator McCain's campaign actually said -- and I quote -- "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."


KING: One more time.


OBAMA: Senator McCain's campaign actually said -- and I quote -- "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."


KING: Candidate Obama is quoting from a news story about the McCain campaign. But the windup, the context, is chopped off in the Romney ad.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: More spending and borrowing.


KING: We will explain that one a little bit later.

Now team Romney says all is fair in life in politics. We disagree. I disagree. Truth is, you deserve better. But, just for kicks, let's play by Governor Romney's rules.

Here is the governor's economic plan. And, again, using Romney rules, the governor's health care vision for the elderly.


ROMNEY: Care or denial of care for seniors on Medicare.


KING: And if Romney rules apply, how about immigration?


ROMNEY: Put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state.


KING: Well, you get the picture.

Now, to be fair, the Romney campaign is hardly the first to run a misleading TV ad. And they are right when they say team Obama's track record on this issue is far from perfect. But to say everyone does it isn't good enough or at least shouldn't be good enough.

Our debate tonight will remind us of the challenges facing the next president, from the anemic recovery and the debt crisis to the global challenges from China and Iran. You deserve a real and a spirited debate. Not one tainted by bogus ads. This one is airing in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary seven weeks from tonight.

President Obama was there today. He doesn't have a primary challenge, so consider this a 2012 general election test drive.


OBAMA: The next time you hear one of these folks from the other side coming and talking about raising your taxes, you just remind them that ever since I have gotten office, I have lowered your taxes, haven't raised them. That's worth reminding them.


KING: Governor Romney has a big lead among Republicans in New Hampshire. And this week he picked up a coveted endorsement, that of freshman Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, who is with us live from Manchester tonight.

Senator, thanks for spending some time with us.


KING: I want to talk about the big issues in the campaign, but I want to begin with that advertisement. I want to begin with that advertisement.

The Romney campaign is grossly taking out of context something then Senator Obama said in 2008. Would you pick up the phone to the campaign and say let's have a debate about unemployment, let's have a debate about health care, let's have a debate about challenges, let's not distort things and have bogus TV ads?


No, with all respect, John, I think that this campaign is going to be about the president's record. And the discussion about this campaign ad has been somewhat overblown. Clearly, the campaign has addressed it. And the bottom line is that we're going to be talking about the president's record.

And it's been fewer jobs for this country and fewer opportunities for Americans and what Mitt Romney will do to get Americans back to work and his experience as a successful businessman in doing that.

KING: But, Senator, the way the campaign has addressed it is saying we're glad the Obama team is upset. We're glad that we're doing something that they have done in the past campaign.

What they're doing is dishonest. If Governor Romney is to be trusted to be the next economic leader of the United States, the next commander in chief of the United States, why? The president is vulnerable. We all know he's vulnerable. We all know you could run a campaign on the issues. Why do you have to take something he said four years ago and grossly put it out of context?

AYOTTE: Well, John, they are having a campaign about the issues.

And today in New Hampshire, the president came. And things are worse in this country. And he had promised that he would fix the economy. And, unfortunately, his years in office, it's gotten worse for Americans, and particularly less opportunities for the future in this country.

And that's what Mitt Romney will do. And he's put forward a solid economic plan. And I know that this presidential campaign will be about our economy and getting people back to work. And Mitt Romney has the experience to do that.

KING: In some ways, these questions aren't fair of you. You don't make decisions for the Romney campaign. But you did sign on as endorsing him this week.

You're listed on his letterhead as a big New Hampshire and national figure in the campaign. But, Senator, you just proved my point. If things are worse in New Hampshire, if the president is vulnerable, if Governor Romney has in your view such a great economic plan, why isn't that what's in the ad?

Why is what is in the ad taking the president out of context? You were once the state attorney general. That's when I first met you. I'm sure you put a lot of people behind bars. What if you had a news conference where you said we have to get this SOB off the streets because he's running around thinking it's OK to prey on young children, and somebody chopped off the last part, and in a TV said, quoted you it's OK to prey on young children?

That would be grossly wrong, correct?

AYOTTE: Well, John, I think that's a very different situation in the context of a criminal case.

KING: Why is it a different situation?


AYOTTE: We're in the middle of a campaign.

And I will say this, that clearly this discussion is being prompted here. We need to talk about the president's economic record. And that's what this ad focuses on. And this is an economic record where we have lost nearly two million jobs since the president's been in office. And our debt has reached $15 trillion.

That's why I signed up to support Governor Romney, because I know that he will get our fiscal house in order. And when you think about what just happened with that super committee, I think that was a chronic failure of leadership there from the president.

KING: Well, let's talk about that. And I'm not going to badger you about this ad because you didn't write it and you're not spending the money to air it.

But I know your state pretty well, having grown up next door, and I think the people of New Hampshire and the people of the country deserve better than what they're getting in this ad.

But let's talk about the president's trip there today. It's a state he won last time. It's a state we know is a purple state. It could go either way come next November. And even though it's small, it will be a key battleground.

One of the points the president wanted to make was he was talking about the jobs bill, talking about the economic debate in the country. And listen to the president here challenge the Republicans, essentially saying, if we're going to deal with the deficit, if we're going to deal with the debt, he thinks you have to raise some taxes on wealthy Americans.

Listen to the president.


OBAMA: Are they really willing to break their oath to never raise taxes and raise taxes on the middle class just to play politics? I sure -- I sure hope not.

You know, this isn't about who wins or loses in Washington. This is about delivering a win for the American people.


KING: The president's point there, Senator, is, if nothing is done, if this stalemate continues, next year, the Bush tax cuts will expire. And so taxes for everybody, including the middle class, would go up if nothing is done.

Is that what's going to happen? We're just going to have to have a campaign and then start in 2013?

AYOTTE: Well, I actually...

KING: Or is there any way to have another conversation about the deficit and taxes?

AYOTTE: Well, I actually think that there's, again, a failure of leadership from the president on this issue.

Let's bring us in perspective of where we are. His party had a supermajority in the House and the Senate. And the president didn't do anything to address the debt. He ignored his own fiscal commission, and then in the United States Senate, his budget got zero votes. It went down 97-0. Not even one member of his party would vote for it. He has an opportunity here. To do big things, we need presidential leadership. And he will be held accountable for that. Mitt Romney will provide that type of leadership in getting our fiscal house in order, putting together a responsible budget for our country.

If the president had done that alone, we wouldn't even be where we are right now on this super committee. Those are the basic steps that a president in a time like this, putting aside the political campaigning and being a statesman about it, and that's what our country needs right now.

KING: Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, keep an eye on her as this debate continues about those automatic spending cuts.

Senator, we will visit on that issue on another day. Appreciate your time tonight.

AYOTTE: Thanks, John.

KING: It's a big Republican debate night here in Washington, D.C., and the voters of New Hampshire will be watching.

And still to come here, Egypt's military leader tries to appease the protesters back in Cairo's Tahrir Square. But are his promises to yield power believable?

And next, the economy is issue number one. But there's new proof on this debate night that the commander in chief test, well, it matters too.


KING: If you need evidence these debates matter, look no further than the latest national poll of the GOP presidential race, atop the field, the back to the future candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich given up as a lost cause and broke just about five months ago.

The new Quinnipiac poll out tonight has Gingrich at 26 percent followed by another steady debater, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at 22 percent, and here's something that ought to give team Romney shudders. They asked this question. If the race came down to two candidates, Gingrich and Romney, well, the former speaker in that matchup has a 20-point lead, which tells you two things. Gingrich is for real at least at the moment. And there's a reason all the other candidates keep saying all they really want is a one-on-one shot at Governor Romney.

So will tonight's debate shake up this race yet again?

Our CNN contributors Dana Loesch, Paul Begala, David Gergen here with me at the debate hall.

To that point, to the conservative in the group first, this has been a bouncing ball, the anybody but Romney or the alternative to Romney in the field. When you talk to activists around the country, do they view Gingrich credibly as that candidate now or is this still going to bounce around?

DANA LOESCH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's still going to bounce around. We have come quite a long way from the Newt Gingrich of the late '90s, the Newt Gingrich of Dede Scozzafava, New York's 23, to now here he's the number two guy.

Frankly, I don't think a lot of us saw this coming. He's a formidable debater to be sure. But he has a little bit of baggage with some of the cap and trade stuff, his relationships with Nancy Pelosi, so on and so forth. I think it's still going to bounce around. I just don't see everyone coalescing behind Newt Gingrich just yet. Not to say it couldn't happen, but...

KING: As the guy who worked in the Clinton White House when Newt Gingrich was nemesis number one on most issues, but also a guy who after a whole lot of fighting did some work with the president on the balanced budget, did some work with President Clinton on welfare reform, when you see him back from the dead, what goes through your mind? Do you take him as a serious challenge to Mitt Romney or is this another temporary holding place for the anybody but Romney vote?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The honest answer is I don't really know.

It seems implausible at one level. And I, if I were a Gingrich supporter, would be less worried about the baggage actually than about this guy's endless capacity for self-destruction. We don't know what he will say tomorrow, but we're pretty sure it's going to be crazy.

Every Newt story ends with Newt and a can of gasoline and a BIC lighter. He just self-immolates. The other day he said child labor laws are stupid. He said that the Congressional Budget Office was a reactionary socialist institution. That's self-defeating, to say the least. I, as a Democrat, would think it would be great. If I were a Romney supporter, I would think it was great.

But I were a Gingrich supporter, I would be a little nervous.

KING: Paul says, if you're a Romney supporter, I think it would be great. Yet Quinnipiac, which is a respected polling firm, asked the question, if it's Romney-Gingrich, how do you view it? And I know we're having a conversation in November. We will see what happens after Iowa and New Hampshire if we get to a two-man race, but today Newt Gingrich has a 10-point lead over Governor Romney. That has to make the Romney campaign just say, whoa.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The Romney campaign has to take this very seriously because this is the first time there's been a challenger, a non-Romney or the anti-Romney, who is a more credible figure within the eyes of the Republican Party.

I think it is worth also noting, John, that if you look at the national polls against Obama, Romney does much better against Obama than does Gingrich. And that is a very strong argument that Romney has to take to the polls.

And even in these recent polls, people are saying -- there's a lot of internals in the CNN poll that are interesting. Gingrich is seen as a stronger leader. I had a chance to talk with Newt for a while last week. Yes, he realizes that he's going to come under heavy vetting in the next three or four weeks. He does believe, if he can survive the vetting and if he can have a good night in these debates, then he will emerge as the very strong, you know, contender for...


KING: And as we wait for the debate tonight, some people say, oh, another debate. But we have learned a lot about these candidates in the course of these debates.

One thing we have learned is in every debate, Michele Bachmann has turned fire on the person perceived to be the front-runner at the moment. I would guess if she continues her so far very predictable strategy, Gingrich comes under Bachmann ire tonight.

Newt has not been the focus of the attacks. He's sort of been the elder statesman. People want to have the -- I agree with Newt. I agree with Newt. Now that he's leading in the national polls, does he get a kick me sign?

LOESCH: I think a little bit. Yes. I fully expect some candidates to come after him tonight, especially -- and Bachmann just in keeping with that trend.

But at the same time, I think some of them will be a little bit afraid to come after him, because he usually makes mincemeat of his opponents. He's got fantastic rhetorical skills. He's the best debater in this primary. He's better than Romney. So they do so at great cost.

And I think they would have to be very well-prepared for any and all type comebacks. Otherwise they could single-handedly destroy their perception if they're for the lack of a more nuanced term owned on national television in one debate.

KING: How do you view this tonight as a Democrat when you watch these debates? You have watched the poll lead shift around. But what have you learned about the candidates? You're a words guy, you're a fight guy. When you watch these people and you're thinking, all right, who's got it, who can react well and make their case verbally, and in the sparring that is a debate, who do you look at?

BEGALA: In each debate, Mitt Romney has gotten better. He started out pretty darn good.

I'm of course supporting President Obama and helping a PAC that supports President Obama. But in those debates in 2008, Joe Biden won a bunch of them, Hillary Clinton won a bunch of them. Chris Dodd won a bunch of them. Mitt Romney's pretty much won every debate a lot because other people have made mistakes like Rick Perry, but a lot of because he's becoming increasingly confident and comfortable in these debate settings.

He doesn't know national security the way Newt Gingrich or Jon Huntsman or Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann, who is on the House Intelligence Committee. It will be interesting if he has the same sense of mastery tonight. And if he does, I will be very impressed.

KING: Right. We see Congresswoman Bachmann I believe just arrived on camera. There's her staff coming behind her coming in to this great hall.

We're steps from the White House, David Gergen. As we get six weeks from tonight, Iowa cast their first votes. Seven weeks from tonight, New Hampshire then follows up. Iowa usually knocks some candidates out of the race. They don't necessarily pick the nominee, but they winnow the field.

Then New Hampshire votes. In the sense of the debates have mattered a lot, do they matter more as you get closer to the voting or do they matter a little less as you get closer to the voting ?

GERGEN: I think they matter an awful lot until about two or three weeks out, because organization on the ground in Iowa traditionally has meant a lot.

That's where the Romney financial advantage over Gingrich may come out to play. But I want to go back to Paul's point. Because I think this is the central point. Newt in the '90s was seen as a bomb- thrower, erratic. You couldn't be sure. Really bright, but erratic.

And the question is whether -- just like a Richard Nixon. There was a new Nixon. Can there be a new Newt? Can he convince people he's more mature now, he's more settled down? Then he becomes a different kind of candidate, don't you think?

BEGALA: Absolutely.


KING: Your Britney Spears microphone has slipped off.


KING: We can fix that during a quick break.


KING: You were agreeing with Mr. Gergen.

But we see that sometimes. Your guy Bill Clinton was given up for dead many times. John McCain was given up for dead in the last campaign. So write Newt off at your peril.

Everybody stay quite put. David, Paul, Dana will stay with us.

Tonight's "Truth" is a sad one and an important history lesson. That a bit later. And, next, one of tonight's debaters could be president when Iran gets a nuclear warhead or China flexes its growing military might. How do they differ from the current commander in chief? That's next.


KING: Tonight's "Number" is for everyone who's maybe lost count of just how many Republican debates we have had in the 2012 presidential cycle.

The number is 11, including tonight's. They started back in May and each debate shook up the race in one way or another. Case in point, Texas Governor Rick Perry, this will be his eighth debate of the 11 total. And his debate performances, guess what, they haven't helped his poll numbers at all.

On the other hand, the debates have been very good, you might say very, very good, to Newt Gingrich. He was in the middle of the pack in a poll we did just before the first debate. Our latest poll has the speaker on top.

About 90 minutes away from our debate tonight. Often when the questions are about national security, they end up being hypothetical and ominous. What if Iran gets a nuclear weapon? What if Egypt's military going to backslides on its promises and cracks down again in Tahrir Square? What if the choice in Syria is Assad or Islamists? In this campaign, not so hypotheticals.

What you hear tonight matters.

Back now with Dana Loesch, Paul Begala, and David Gergen.

One of the interesting things is the candidate who you would argue has the most foreign policy experience on this stage is Jon Huntsman, ambassador to Singapore, ambassador to China. Has taken not the Ron Paul approach, but said the United States should not get involved in Libya. He did not see Libya as in our national security interests.

Listen to this. I had a conversation with Governor Huntsman yesterday asking him about Syria with the Assad government perhaps teetering and Governor Huntsman says there's a key difference.


JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have to see Syria differently than Libya. I wasn't in favor of what happened in Libya. That was not a core national security interest. Syria, arguably, is closer to a core national security interest because Israel is a core security interest.


KING: Closer, David Gergen, to a core national security interest. He went onto to say first covert action, support the opposition, but he said you cannot, as he insisted we should have done in Libya, take a military option, a NATO option, off the table. That's different.

GERGEN: It is different.

And he has not gained traction. If you go back and look at his answers in the first debate on national security, he just didn't get his arguments across and on the issues that matter to him the most.

On this Syrian thing, I think what we're all going to be listening for tonight is just how bellicose these candidates will be about the use of military force and especially about covert action. There's been much more emphasis about the U.S. acting covertly in Iran and in Syria among these Republican candidates than we ever heard from the Obama administration.

And it's always surprising to me somebody who runs who says I'm going to use covert action, because as soon as you get in there, everybody all around the world's going to claim the U.S. is doing this. This is the CIA. You open yourself up to that. I don't understand that.

KING: But as you well know, I covered your campaign back in 1992 and then Governor Clinton talked about...


KING: I was 12, I wish.


KING: I won't do business with the butchers in Beijing and the dictators in Damascus. Went on to have pretty productive relationships with the Chinese and did...

BEGALA: I wrote that line.


KING: ... and did some business with Assad.

Now, I don't expect any U.S. president to do any business with Iran, but listen to Governor Rick Perry here. This is a serious question for the current president of the United States and for whoever has the office come January 2013, whether his name is Obama or his or her name is one of these candidates up here tonight.

Rick Perry says you would do anything, anything, to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Listen.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We will support Israel in every way that we can, whether it's diplomatic, whether it's economic sanctions, whether it's overt or covert operations, up to and including military action. We cannot afford to allow that madman in Iran to get his hands on a nuclear weapon, period.

KING: Even if it started a war in the region?

PERRY: We cannot allow that madman to get his hands on a nuclear weapon, because we know what he would do with it.


KING: Very tough talk there, very supportive of Israel.

Here's the question first to Dana and then to Paul. This may not be a fair question, but as voters consider this, do we want to give the Republicans back the White House? In the Democrats' days, are we getting a tax and spend liberal. And Bill Clinton had to campaign saying I'm a different kind of Democrat. I'm a different kind of Democrat.

Do independent voters who maybe don't like the Iraq decision, maybe thought we should have been coming out of Afghanistan years ago, do they hold it against Republicans who talk tough? Do they think, I don't want to go back to the Bush days?

LOESCH: I know there's certainly a danger of that.

I know definitely when I -- I happen to like the tough talking, but I'm not as some would say a neocon. I don't think we should have been in Libya. I don't think we should have been involved in Egypt. I think there's a fine line one can walk.

Whether or not Rick Perry has been walking that line saying he believes in a very strong defense. We need to make sure that people who absolutely have made it clear that they would wipe our only ally in the Middle East off the map and perhaps come after us, to make sure they don't get nuclear capabilities.

I think that that's different from saying I'm going to go and get involved in Libya and go to Uganda and Syria and so on and so forth. He does have to walk a fine line. Independents definitely are going to be listening to that. But grassroots also now I think have been trending a little bit more, for the lack of a better term here, a little bit more independent in terms of looking to see where we spend money on foreign policy.

KING: Governors always face this credibility test. They tend to win the presidency more often and not, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush just in recent times. But they tend to face this. Is that just a talking point? How do they really think about the world?

BEGALA: Right. And they often try too hard. That's why I winced when you referred to that line that I wrote about the butchers of Beijing.

Well, you know, we were all very upset by Tiananmen Square, which had only been three years before that campaign. But of course, that's not the tone a president should strike, and I was wrong to write that.

I was listening to Governor Perry. And, you know, I don't support him, but I wish I could have scripted him. Because what you say when you're the president, actually, is less. Less is more. You say I'm not going to rule anything out. The United States has vast resources, economic, moral, diplomatic and yes, military. I won't rule anything out.

It sounds like Clint Eastwood, though. The scariest guy in the movie is not Paul -- you know, Pee Wee Herman running around screaming. It's Clint Eastwood, clenching his teeth, saying, "Make my day." You know?

GERGEN: I think that voters pay a little less attention to the particulars on foreign policy conversations about what you're planning to do and look much more for essential judgment. Are you going to -- can they see you as a sound, wise commander in chief? Are you going to be tough but also restrained in the use of power? I think they're looking for sort of qualities in a person more than a particular position.

KING: In that regard, how critical is tonight to Herman Cain, in the sense that he's the newcomer, and we don't have time to play it, but he had this editorial moment with the "Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal" where he just froze up. And he wasn't being asked about some obscure country. He was being asked about Libya, which has been on the front pages for months, and he couldn't come up with an answer.

Now, I'm on live television. I do it all the time. Sometimes the brain and the tongue don't connect, so one moment does not necessarily mean much. But he has a chance in this debate. I suspect he has an urgency in this debate to clean that up and to prove "I can be the commander in chief." Because right now if you asked 100 people you picked randomly on the street, I think 99 of them would say, "Ooh."

LOESCH: Yes, he needs to give that answer, but quicker. He ended up having the correct answer, and it was something that all the conservatives agreed with, but he said it in a very -- it was very slow and you could tell he was still gathering his thoughts. Which is fine. I don't begrudge anyone that. It happens to the best of us.

But at the same time he needs to -- in a debate it's sound bite versus sound bite, and he needs to be a lot quicker off the cuff.

BEGALA: I used to tease candidates who are unprepared on foreign policy. They can't learn about 200 countries, just memorize the I countries. Seriously. Israel, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, India, Indonesia. These are all the countries that...

KING: Not Iceland?

BEGALA: Iceland's fine. But, you know, seriously like for Mr. Cain, he doesn't know enough about Libya or Syria, but he should know something about Iran. He can actually take one certificate (ph) for that.

KING: Yes. Take the Fifth.

GERGEN: It should be about Europe. We want to hear something about the economic situation in Europe.

KING: I hope we hear...

GERGEN: Yes. What's that?

KING: I hope we hear a lot about that.

BEGALA: See, if the Germans want to bailout, I'll say 9-9-9.

KING: All right. Paul Begala with important advice to all future candidates out there. You asked a question, don't know the answer, we call it a pivot in the business. Just ignore the question, find something else to talk about.

David, Paul, Dana, thanks for coming in.

Still to come here, we'll go live to Cairo for proof these candidates better be studying the fast-changing world.

And, next, tonight's new allegations in the sex scandal served on the former Penn State football coach, Jerry Sandusky.


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

The Justice Department just moments ago announcing it's suing to block Utah's new immigration law, saying that law violates the Constitution by trying to establish a state-specific immigration policy. The Obama immigration has already sued to block immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina.

Two cases of child abuse alleged now against a former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky. Those cases opened by Pennsylvania's Children and Youth Services Agency, according to sources close to the investigation.

CNN contributor Sara Ganim is reporting the cases were opened less than 60 days ago. Now this is important. They are the first to involve current children rather than adults coming forward to allege abuse from years ago.

The former New Jersey governor and U.S. Senator Jon Corzine now called to testify before a House committee on the collapse of his brokerage firm, MF Global.

A judge today sentenced one-time Obama campaign contributor Tony Rezko to ten and a half years in prison. That for his part in a kickback scandal involving the former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich.

And worries about the U.S. and European economies pushed stocks lower. But if this is any solace, today's loss is smaller, compared to Monday's big drop.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Erin is also here in the debate hall. What are you going to look for tonight?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: I was wandering through the debate. It's exciting. Everyone arriving, getting ready, taking their seats.

We're going to obviously be doing counting down to the debate. Talking about some of the big foreign policies out there but also about this whole issue of defense cuts and there's two schools of thoughts, right? One is, "Hey, it's no problem. H.W. Bush, Reagan, they cut defense more. This shouldn't be a problem." And another school of thought that actually comes to a very different conclusion. So we're going to talk about that.

We also have Jon Huntsman's daughters. All three of them going to join us on the show. So...

KING: They're a hoot.

BURNETT: Yes, they are. We're excited to...

KING: So far they're getting more attention than their dad, which I guess is not so good if your dad's on the ballot. But...

BURNETT: That's right. So we're going to give them a chance to talk about who their dad really is. Maybe they're going to make a better case for him than he's made. And also General Wesley Clark who's going to join us to talk about Iran and some of the other big threats that obviously are going to get a lot of talk in that room back there.

KING: A lot of talk. It's an important time for this debate, because the economic questions are also national security questions. Iran, China challenge. Interesting night.

BURNETT: China has all of it in one big ball.

KING: One big ball. We're going to deal with that for the next generation. Erin, see you in just a few minutes.

BURNETT: All right.

KING: Thanks. Next, shortly after Cairo's demonstrators hanged him in effigy, Egypt's military leader goes on television to make an important announcement.


KING: There's an image. Check this out from just moments ago. The Texas governor, Rick Perry, arriving here at Constitution Hall. Just steps from the White House for tonight's Republican presidential debate.

National security issues are our focus. And one of the most important challenges for the current president, potentially, most likely for the next president, too, is Egypt.

Four straight days of bloody violence now. Confrontations between security forces and demonstrators demanding a quicker transition to democracy. Well, tonight Egypt's military leader announced some important concessions.

Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, live for us in Cairo tonight.

And Ben, when Field Marshall Tantawi took to state television, did he -- did his concessions -- did what he promised wasn't enough to satisfy those tens of thousands who are back in Tahrir Square.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Basically, the major concession that he made was to move the planned presidential elections from December of 2012 to sometime in June. So that's really it. And it really was not enough to calm the anger here in Tahrir Square.

Most of the people here were looking, A, for an apology, for this sort of police brutality which resulted in the death of at least 30 protesters and the injury of as many as 2,000.

And they were looking for some sort of indication precisely when the military council would completely hand over powers to some sort of civilian president or parliament.

And so what we have going on now and it's almost 2 a.m. in the morning, people still coming to Tahrir Square. They called for a million-man march. I don't know if they've reached that number, but it seems to have been pretty close to it. And they say they're going to stay here until the military council resigns -- John.

KING: And, Ben, help us understand the sense of tension, if you will.

When Mubarak fell, many of the protesters were grateful for the military. They viewed the military as the force in the society, the respected institution in society to manage this transition.

Now you hear from those protesters a lot of mistrust. You mentioned the violence. A lot of them don't think the military is going to yield power and view the elections maybe as a sham. How do they have this transition moving forward if there's such distrust?

WEDEMAN: Well, it's important to point out that it's not that they distrust the army. What the people they don't distrust or rather they don't trust are the members of the military council, all of them senior officers in the military who rose through the ranks during the years of Hosni Mubarak. In fact, Field Marshal Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister. So they want them to leave.

Now, how is this going to happen is not at all clear. And it's important to keep in mind that there are many Egyptians who are not in Tahrir Square who still support the military council, who are worried that all this political upheaval will fundamentally destabilize this country.

After all, on Monday, the Monday next, there's supposed to be elections, parliamentary elections, but the worry is with all of this going on in the middle of Cairo that those elections are either not going to go ahead despite the pledges by the military council, or those elections could be very violent -- John.

KING: Important reporting from our Ben Wedeman, live in Cairo tonight. You see those live pictures of Tahrir Square. A story we'll continue to track.

And with us now to discuss what the United States can do and how this might impact our big debate tonight, CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend, who of course, for President George W. Bush, was homeland security advisor.

Also with me in the debate hall, James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation which is the co-sponsor of tonight's debate on CNN.

Fran, when you watch this play out, we see again by the tens of thousands, the protesters back in the streets. They don't trust the military transition, the transitional military government. We'll see what happens in the elections.

Does the United States here just have to watch and hope this plays out in a relatively peaceful way? Or is there something any president of the United States can and should be doing right now?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, John, this was always going to be a difficult transition. When President Obama came out and supported the protesters against the Mubarak regime, it was clear that this was going to be a process over a period of time to get to free and fair elections in Egypt.

That said, you know, the protesters and the opposition had a right to expect more than rhetoric. And more than simply sort of the U.S. throwing up its hands and saying "over to you now" once Mubarak was overthrown.

And I don't think that the protesters, the opposition, feel as though there's been a whole lot of engagement and support from the United States.

Look, this was -- we have institutions here, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, that help build political parties that help parties in emerging democracies actually get to a point where they can have and conduct free and fair elections. I think that there is more that the United States can do. And it's got to be more than mere rhetoric. I mean, they really need the sort of support and institution-building that is required to get to these elections.

KING: The tensions are inevitable, Jim, in the sense that you have a military government, you have these protesters who knocked off a long-standing regime who feel that they have power, and of course, they want it all now.

Should the United States be trying to pull leverage? Or should the United States just be watching and keeping quietly open the military-to-military relationship which goes back decades? JAMES CARAFANO, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, this has actually been one of the problems of the administration from the start is that they focused on whatever's on the front page instead of focusing on where can they have the biggest impact and where they can really advance our interests. And that's really simple.

It's the three "I's." Israel, which is a strong ally, should be reaffirming our alliance. Iran, which is the biggest troublemaker, we should be doing everything we can to push them back in the box. And Iraq, which is a country that's very key and pivotal working for transition, which actually I think we've been doing a poor job on all three. So we're a bystander on one sense. We're not acting aggressively where we can make a difference.

KING: But if you're making the case that the United States, when it comes to looking at the Egypt question and what's happening right now at this moment, should put Israel first, some would argue that means do whatever Field Marshal Tantawi wants because he has a pretty good relationship with the Israeli military. His relationship -- they might not be friends, but this relationship of trust and cooperation along the border there. But if you do that, then you might be defying the will of those children, the kids, the protesters.

CARAFANO: I think the No. 1 thing the United States can do is make the case that Israel is a strong ally to the United States, and we will back them, letting nobody know that you can, you know, take a day's march on the Israelis. That's the most important thing. And then let the Israelis figure out their relations with their neighbors.

KING: Fran, Mr. Carafano mentions how important Israel is in the region. That was in the context of the Egypt question. I want you to listen here to a conversation I had with Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah. He's one of the Republican candidates tonight.

He said a couple months ago the United States, in his view, had no national -- no national interest at all in Libya. Governor Huntsman said what he told me -- and we don't have the sound, unfortunately, but he told me this is very different because Syria is so connected to the Israeli question. Hamas and Hezbollah get support from Syria.

So he said in this case he would try to work covertly, try to support the operation. But unlike Libya, Governor Huntsman did not take the military option, a NATO-like option off the table when it comes to Syria. Is that a reasonable position? Could there be such an option, viably?

TOWNSEND: Well, I think the most interesting thing as we've seen in the last week, the Arab League has stepped up, just as they did in the case of Libya, to try and exert pressure on the Assad regime. That's really significant.

I mean, after all, in Libya where they stepped up, it was not against another Arab nation. Gadhafi had been sort of a sore in terms of his relations with those in the Arab gulf. Assad, that is not true. Syria has historically had very strong relations in the Arab gulf and the Arab world. And that the Arab League now is trying to assert pressure tells you something about how seriously other Arab regimes, existing regimes in the region take the Syria problem. And the brutality that Assad is visiting upon his own people.

And so I think we are on a path that will permit coalition action, whether that's NATO, whether that is increased sanctions from around the world. I do think you're going to see, John, increasing irritation and impatience with Assad holding onto power and continuing to abuse his own people.

KING: Increasing irritation to the point where you could have a Libya-like operation in Syria? That's a whole different ball game.

CARAFANO: I don't think so. First of all, the Chinese and the Russians would never authorize it from the U.N. Security Council. So it would have to be unilateral.

And then look what Syria is surrounded by. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Israel, all who have immense interest in that country and aren't about to see the outside world jump in. This is going to be Iraq 2005 in a very small place, and I think mostly the United States is going to be a bystander.

Fran, in a sentence or two, if you could ask one question of these candidates tonight, what would you ask them?

TOWNSEND: How are you going to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? The president has said he will prevent Iran. And I think we want to know from these candidates what they're going to do to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I think it's the greatest single threat.

KING: Fran has the Iran question. Yours would be?

CARAFANO: Well, the world is a very fast-moving place. It's going to look a lot different when somebody puts their hand on the Bible 18 months from now. We want to hear about is this going to be a president of character? What kind of commander in chief they're going to be. So it's all about character and leadership.

KING: James Carafano, Fran Townsend, appreciate it.

Tonight an important debate coming up. A little more than an hour away. Just moments ago, while we were having the conversation, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney arrived near the debate hall. You saw pictures of the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich arriving, too. High stakes for them tonight in a national security debate coming up at the top of the next hour on CNN.

Still a little more programming to come here. Up next here, the truth about what you're going to hear and maybe hear and not like in political ads.


KING: The value of debates like tonight's is you get to hear the candidates in their own words. Yes, sometimes we need to nudge them on the time, but their answers are their answers. No editing.

We're learning again tonight we can't count on that, on fairness and context, when it comes to political ads. Listen here. This was candidate Obama in 2008.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."


KING: Now here it is edited out of context for a new Mitt Romney for president ad.


OBAMA: If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.


KING: As I said at the top of the program, you deserve better. Especially with the country facing such profound challenges. And my business, including this program, needs to do a better job policing the candidates when they twist the truth and distort things like this.

It's no surprise now that team Obama is howling in protest about the Romney ad. They've clogged my inbox today with all the press releases quoting all the fact checks, calling Romney on the carpet.

But here's tonight's "Truth." Yes, the Romney ad is reprehensible. But team Obama should stop complaining and look in the mirror. The last time around, they were guilty of the very same deceptive tactic. Listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't believe we're headed into a recession.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're absolutely in a recession.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I sometimes struggle just to get the essentials. You know, the milk, the bread, the eggs.


KING: Now that ad made it seem Senator McCain was blind to the economic pain in the country. But it took this out of context. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I don't believe we're headed into a recession. I believe the fundamentals of this economy are strong, and I believe they will remain strong. This is a rough patch, but I think America's greatness lies ahead of us.


KING: Here's more from that very same Obama 2008 ad.


MCCAIN: There's been great progress economically.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The economy is in a rut.


KING: Again, that's a creative edit. Senator McCain did say there's been great promise economically, but he went on in the same interview in the same sentence to say, but that's no comfort. That's no comfort to families now facing these tremendous economic challenges.

Once more, same ad.


MCCAIN: We have had a pretty good, prosperous time with low unemployment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The way the economy is, is the bleakest of times.


KING: Again, that made Senator McCain look oblivious, right? But again, a not-so-fair edit.


MCCAIN: We have had a pretty good, prosperous time with low unemployment and low inflation, and a lot of good things have happened. A lot of jobs have been created.

But let's have some straight talk. Things are tough right now. Americans are uncertain, mainly about this housing crisis. Americans are uncertain about the economy as we see the stock market bounce up and down.


KING: So as we rightly point out tonight's new Romney ad is unfair. A gross distortion. It's important we also point out team Obama hardly, hardly has clean hands when it comes to mean-spirited hocus-pocus in their campaign ads.

This is presidential campaign No. 7 for me. The Willie Horton ad played a starring role in my first campaign and, well, it gets worse and worse every cycle, sadly. So I'm not so naive as to think the campaigns will pay much attention as we point out their dirty tricks or pay much attention as we urge them -- urge them to treat you with more respect.

The truth is you deserve better, and the lame excuse from the campaigns that, well, everyone does it is just that. Lame. You deserve better.

A big debate just an hour away. Let's pick up our coverage right now. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.

BURNETT: Thanks so much to you, John. We're going to talk more about that ad.