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JOHN KING, USA

Payroll Tax Cut Fight Continues; Gingrich Surge Stalling?; Interview With Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann

Aired December 14, 2011 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening tonight live from Reiman Gardens on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames.

Iowa holds its kickoff presidential caucuses in just 20 days. We're getting a clear sense tonight from our visit here that the Newt Gingrich surge is stalling, or has reached a plateau, anyway. In a moment, we will explore who might benefit from a Gingrich stall, and trust me Ron Paul has to be high on any such list.

But first, why is it happening? Activists here tell us a barrage of criticism from Gingrich rivals is beginning to take a toll. And those attacks increased sharply today led by the one-time front- runner, Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Zany is great in a campaign, it's great on talk radio, it's great in the print. It makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader. And a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Just moments ago the Iowa front-runner, now the national front-runner as well, Newt Gingrich, deflected Governor Romney's latest criticism directed at the Gingrich campaign. The former speaker telling reporters at a press conference that just concluded in Iowa City, Iowa, he will continue to focus on as he puts it staying positive.

But positive was not the tone Gingrich took during several exchanges during the news conference.

CNN's Jim Acosta is traveling with the Gingrich campaign. He was at that press conference and he joins us now from Iowa City tonight.

Jim, take us inside the press conference. The speaker being questioned not only about the Romney attacks, but about other things as well. You could see he was a tad testy.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He was.

You know, I think what Newt Gingrich was trying to say in this room, just a few moments ago, is that he is, as you said just a few moments ago, trying to stick to a positive campaign. There was that attack from Mitt Romney earlier today. I pressed him on that question. I said, look, he basically called you zany in this interview with "The New York Times."

And he sort of cut off the question and said, I'm not going to go there, I'm going it leave it up to reporters to ask these candidates as what they're doing and what they're saying out on the campaign trail. I'm going to focus on a positive campaign.

He admitted later on in that news conference, John, that he felt like he had been baited by Mitt Romney earlier this week. You recall earlier this week when Governor Romney said that Newt Gingrich should perhaps return some of the money he earned advising the housing giant Freddie Mac, and then Newt Gingrich responded, perhaps Mitt Romney should compensate all of those people he downsized when he was the head of Bain Capital.

Gingrich conceded during this news conference a few moments ago that he felt baited into that back and forth, and he feels that took him off message. His message, he says, is a positive one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They should run their campaign the way they want to. I'm going to run my campaign the way I want to. My campaign is going to focus on positive ideas and positive solutions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: So that's how Newt Gingrich put it right there. He says he's going to focus on positive solutions.

He was at an event today talking about a brain science project he wants to bring to the National Institutes of Health if he is elected president. But, John, during that speech that he gave here at the University of Iowa, Occupy Wall Street protesters, they call themselves Occupy Iowa City protesters, lashed out at the former speaker.

It went on for several minutes. It got very tense in the room until security had to come in and take the demonstrators out. Then at the very end of that question and answer session, in that room there was an unidentified man who asked a very nasty question of Newt Gingrich and said to the former speaker that he had a Ph.D. on cheating on his wife.

This was a difficult day for the former speaker, John.

KING: Difficult day heading into the final stretch here in Iowa. The challenge now is, can he keep the lead in the polls? Jim Acosta live tracking the front-runner, Newt Gingrich, tonight, Jim, thank you.

Let's get some more perspective now from our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. And, Gloria, this is testing time. He leads in the national polls, and more importantly, he leads here in Iowa, the first state, and then in South Carolina and Florida, three and four. The question is, can he withstand the attacks? There's sort of two parts of that. One is how does he response to them? Number two, how do the voters?

Let's deal with Speaker Gingrich. His saying, well, I'm going to say positive and leave it up to you, will that sell or will he have to fire back?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's working so far for him today. I think he makes a point when he says he feels baited because I think he is being baited, to a degree with negative ads coming at him, with Mitt Romney calling him zany and intemperate, and you know, I think if he keeps the smile on his face it's going to -- it's going to work for him, John.

The question is, you have these other campaigns out there who are waiting for the old Newt Gingrich to return, and you know the old Newt Gingrich, John, and he will respond. You know, he says he reserves the right to respond to charges that are specifically made at him, but I think today he was -- he was really exhibiting an awful lot of self- restraint, don't you?

KING: Self-restraint for now. The question is, the last debate before the Iowa caucuses is tomorrow night. He's going to encounter more protesters, he's going to encounter more tough questions, some of them personal. Let's listen to the exchange Jim Acosta was just talking about right near the end of the Gingrich news conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. You have talked about money not being everything. But you have taken plenty of shortcuts to get (OFF- MIKE) publishing your books and marketing them. And it seems like...

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: How would you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it seems like you have a Ph.D. in cheating on your wife.

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: Other than personal hostility, which is understandable, but not part of the academic experience, how would you know anything about how I published and sold books?

I went to commercial publishers. They were in bookstores. People there who liked them could buy them. People who don't like them didn't have to buy them. It was called freedom. The fact that I happened to write books people liked may bother you, but it doesn't mean that the books were wrong or that people aren't allowed to buy them.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I think that was a classic Gingrich in a very calm answer to the part about his success selling books. He ignored the question about his personal life.

If he's going to spend a lot of time in Iowa, though, both from reporters and from activists, there's going to more of that over the next 20 days.

BORGER: I think he actually handled himself pretty well there, John. He could have taken on the marital infidelity question, and he chose to ignore it, which is probably a good thing for him to do, and he talked about the academic experience.

Newt Gingrich is a teacher. He's a professor. He's a lecturer. And so he understood how to handle it. If the hostility's thrown at him and he deflects it in a very low-key way, I think that probably works to his advantage.

I think the question is, on policy, as it comes at him at the debate tomorrow night, the question is going to be whether his poll numbers start to go down if people believe he's less of a conservative than he says he is, and that's really important in Iowa, right?

KING: It's very important in Iowa. That's where people say the attacks are beginning to take a toll. Gloria made mention of that debate tomorrow night. It will be very important to watch as we see how the Romney campaign, whether he will do in the debates what he's been doing in these interviews.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, Gloria, thanks.

BORGER: Sure.

KING: We will talk to you soon.

There's much more to tell you about on the campaign trail today, yet another poll showing that Newt Gingrich is clearly the Republican front-runner when you look at the national numbers -- 40 percent of those surveyed by NBC News and "The Wall Street Journal" say they prefer Gingrich as the Republican nominee. Mitt Romney is not even close. He is coming in second at 23 percent.

But take a look when the same poll asked how the top Republican candidates stack up against President Obama. Romney statistically tied with the president, but compare that to Obama vs. Gingrich. The president leads 51 percent to 40 percent.

Ramping up his attacks on Gingrich today, Governor Romney released a Web video tying the former speaker to another former speaker that, well, Republicans love to hate, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GINGRICH: If enough of us demand action from our leaders.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Together, we can do this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Another candidate to watch is Ron Paul, the Texas congressman whose poll numbers are rising in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's a whole lot for the campaign. That means the momentum is building up. A lot of the candidates so far in this past year would come and go. They'd shoot to the top and they would drop back rather rapidly. Ours has never been that way. Ours has been very, very steady growth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Here in Iowa, there's a bit of a buzz about perhaps an uptick for the Texas governor, Rick Perry. He launched a 42-city bus tour across Iowa today. Governor Perry's message, he's the Washington outsider who will change the way business is done, especially on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's time to send them home, cut their pay in half, cut their staffs in half. You want to overhaul Washington, D.C., that's one of the ways to do it.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Back in Washington late today, news of a major concession from Senate Democrats who say they will now drop their push for a tax on those making over $1 million.

That was part of the Democratic proposal to pay for extending the payroll tax cut. This news followed a testy exchange down on the floor of the Senate earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Republican leaders have already spent weeks drumming up Tea Party support for legislation they knew was dead on arrival in the Senate.

Now it's time to get this vote over with, so real negotiations can begin to prevent a tax increase on 160 million middle-class Americans. SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: They have made no attempt at all to produce a bill that can pass the Senate. It is their responsibility in the majority to do that. Instead we have wasted week after week after week, one senseless show vote after another.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: This afternoon, Senate Democratic leaders went to the White House for a last-minute meeting.

Let's check in with our congressional correspondent, Kate Bolduan. She has the latest from Capitol Hill.

Kate, one of the big questions is, the Democrats have been so adamant this is the way to pay for the payroll tax extension. Why did they essentially blink?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a major concession on the part of Democrats. And this came following a midday meeting of Senate Democratic leaders with President Obama at the White House.

I'm told by a Democratic source Senate Democrats are now working on a new package, a new offer to extend the payroll tax cut. The details of what all would be included in that not yet unveiled, not yet clear, but significantly, as you noted, they will be dropping this millionaire's surtax as a way to cover the cost.

What does this mean going forward? Honestly, it's anyone's guess, as it's all very fluid up here on Capitol Hill right now. I think a big question is, if Democrats are giving here, and they will tell you this is their -- I'm sure they will tell us this is their attempt towards compromise to kind of break this logjam and this standstill that we have been watching play out especially today -- if they're going to give here, what will they be looking for Republicans to give on from their perspective?

What will Republicans give if Democrats give on this major concession? That is not clear right now. It will be also very interesting, I will be looking forward to see how Republican leaders in both the Senate and the House will be reacting to this news. I know some of our colleagues, they did ask Speaker Boehner as well Majority Leader Eric Cantor on the House side what their thoughts were on this developing news.

They deflected questions, but I don't know if we can read into that too much, John, since, honestly, as it's quite developing as we speak almost at moment. As you know, we can't read too much into every step of the way, as this has been quite a winding road to this point. But we do know that both sides are very much feeling the pressure to break this logjam and break this standstill as we're facing a potential government shutdown come Friday, and, of course, the American people being very tired that both sides cannot come together to reach a compromise on this and pretty much every other issue, John. KING: And, Kate, it's complicated chess for both parties. Republicans don't want to be part of raising taxes if they don't reach a deal here. The Democrats, though, especially those Senate Democrats, thought they had a pretty good issue with the millionaire's tax.

Is there a sense among the Senate Democrats that the urgency of the White House to keep this tax cut in place is taking away from them a potential issue in the campaign next year?

BOLDUAN: I think one thing that really changed the feeling up here, if I could say, today was that after the House voted last night on their version, on the Republican version, to extend the payroll tax cut which Democrats are very much opposed to, Senate Democrats and we all covering it really thought they would be moving towards a vote on this House bill in the Senate, which Democrats say would not pass, would fail, and thus that would be kind of the next chess move, if you will, to kind of get to the negotiating table.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, he hesitated and he resisted that from moving forward. So there seems to have been kind of a change in the status and a change in the stance today. And we're seeing a lot of different movements that no one really predicted. And we will have to see kind of how that plays out and what that then means for the Democratic and Republican message going forward because as you well know, a lot of this has to do with political strategy, John.

KING: A lot of moving parts on Capitol Hill. Kate Bolduan keeping track of it. Kate, thank you. We will check in as the story unfolds in the days ahead.

And stay with us, a quick break, but we're just three minutes away from a live interview with Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, once a big Republican favorite, especially here in Iowa. She's now struggling.

And coming up at 6:40, evangelicals will make up, if it's like last time, a majority of the caucus goers here for Republicans. Are they ready to support a thrice-married Newt Gingrich?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're live tonight on the campus of Iowa State University. Look at this right here. There you see Jack Trice Stadium right here. Ames is very special to one of the Republican candidates.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann stunned the Republican establishment by winning the Ames Republican Straw Poll. That vaulted her into the top tier of the Republican presidential field.

Strong early debate performances kept her there.

But since then, the congresswoman has been struggling, including, though she represents Minnesota in the Congress, right here in her birth state of Iowa. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann joins us now live.

And Congresswoman, let's start with that.

Heading into the final stretch, we're 20 days now from the state you were born in casting the first official votes of 2012. And if you look at the polling here in Iowa, the New American Research Group Poll out. Gingrich, 22; Ron Paul, 17; Mitt Romney, 17; Governor Perry at 13. You're down there in fifth place, tied with Rick Santorum at 7 percent.

What went wrong here in Iowa?

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, actually, there's an AP poll that came out today that's just fresh and hot off the press that says I'm tied for third right now.

So we've moved up a lot just in the last couple of days. And that's what you're going to see, 60 to 70 percent of the people are undecided. And this reads a lot like a book. Chapter one, we won the only race that has been held in the country that was statewide, the Iowa Straw Poll. I won that.

Then we had new candidates come in with a lot of drama. But I think when we get to the last chapter, John, we are going to see people come home, because they're looking for the true, proven, tested conservative. And that's me.

I'm the one who can stand on the stage with Barack Obama. There's no issues of compromise between Barack Obama and myself. I think what you're going to see is there's a lot of great pretenders in this race, who are pretending to be conservatives, but they're really just big government liberals. And that's what the problem is.

That's not what our base wants. They want a true -- they want a true social conservative, a true fiscal conservative, a true Tea Partier and a true national security conservative.

Of all the candidates in the race, I'm the only one that meets that criteria. That's why I'm confident that we're going to show very strong on January 3.

KING: All right, so let's talk about that. And I will -- I will get to some of the candidates who you call phony conservatives in a minute. But I think someone you would concede is a fellow conservative, on most issues, anyway, is Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. And like you, he knows that a big part of his base, if he's to do well here, has to be Evangelical Christian conservatives. We know that at least half, normally, of the caucus- goers for Republicans are Evangelical voters.

Listen to Rick Santorum, who says he likes you and he likes your record, but he doesn't think you're presidential.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not like she's ever had or has had any record of success of attracting the kind of voters that we need if we're going to win this election. I think she has a lot going for her, but we -- we've gone through now a president with very limited experience and it's not working out real well for America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: How would you respond to Senator Santorum, who clearly is trying to take away your support among born-again Christians and other Evangelical voters?

BACHMANN: Well, I have very strong support. And I think the reason why I do is people know that I -- I have a very strong track record. I'm 100 percent pro-life from conception until natural death. I also raised 23 foster children in my home, together with our five biological kids. And I also carried the constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman. I have stood up for religious liberty very strongly during my time in Congress.

The other thing is I am the first Republican woman ever to get elected in a very liberal state like Minnesota. That's never happened before. I have won four races since the time that Rick Santorum lost his race. And I have great respect for Rick Santorum, but I have a very strong level of accomplishment.

I think part of that includes the fact that I came from a family that went to below poverty. And I earned my way out of that poverty. And eventually, I worked my way through college, law school, a post- doctorate program in federal tax law. I worked for years in the federal tax court. I started a successful company. I employ tens of -- scores of people in my business. So I'm a very successful person.

I also won in a district where Nancy Pelosi spent $9. 6 million to defeat me. I have raised more money for -- for Congress than any member of Congress in the history of Congress. And I brought 40,000 Americans to fight against Obamacare to the Washington, D.C., capital.

I have a very strong track record of success, including Minnesota was the only state in the country that had overturned our federal politically correct dumbed down education standards.

I have a strong track record of success that I will put up against anyone's. And the most important thing about...

KING: All right, let me jump...

BACHMANN: -- being...

KING: -- well, let...

BACHMANN: -- president...

KING: -- let me...

BACHMANN: -- is being a leader who stands. And I will.

KING: All right. Let me jump in here.

I don't know if you're aware of this, but you have a supporting role in a new Web video the Romney campaign is sending around to its supporters. And you can see it on the Internet. Governor Romney is saying, you know, Newt Gingrich is a hypocrite when it comes to Freddie Mac, that he took $1. 6 million or so of consulting fees and then he was with you at an event in 2008 when he was railing against it.

Let's listen to the speaker's criticism.

We'll see a small glimpse of Michele Bachmann in this video and then I will ask you a question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: The consequence of their survival, they should be broken up. They should be broken up. They should go through the equivalent of a whole of a receivership and then -- and everybody who was profiting from them should pay the cost of having failed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is Speaker Gingrich a hypocrite?

Everybody who profited from them should pay the cost?

Governor Romney says yes.

What do you say?

BACHMANN: Speaker Gingrich has a real problem, John, because for over 30 years, he's been the quintessential insider. He is the establishment. He's the king of K Street. He -- his address is the Rodeo Drive of Washington, D.C., which is K Street, where all the lobbyists are. That's because he's taken in over $100 million over the years for influence peddling.

And here Newt Gingrich was taking over $1. 6 million from Freddie Mac, which was the epicenter of the financial meltdown. And now he comes out and he's saying just the opposite, that they should go into bankruptcy. None of it adds up. And if you look at Newt Gingrich's record, not only is he a big government liberal, he's also on the progressive territory, where, for 20 years, he was a -- hanging out with Alvin and Heidi Toffler, looking at the third wave, which is essentially moving the United States away from our current form of government.

Newt Gingrich has all kinds of trouble with illegal immigration. He was for the $700 billion TARP. He was for the Libya invasion...

KING: Let...

BACHMANN: -- he has been for every issue that our base is against. And he has a lot of trouble on the pro-life issue...

KING: Let me jump in...

BACHMANN: -- and the marriage issue, as well.

KING: -- let me jump in on that point.

As you -- as you raised -- forgive me for interrupting, Congresswoman.

But as you raised the policy distinctions with Speaker Gingrich, and I understand them, I want to say, just quote you, something your South Carolina spokesman said about Newt Gingrich. Wesley Donehue said Gingrich is buying votes. He said this, quote, "Bachmann is trying to grow an organic base of supporters. Newt Gingrich is trying to buy off Tea Party groups. Newt Gingrich knows the only way he can get the Tea Party vote is to buy it."

Does your campaign have any evidence that Speaker Gingrich is doing any improper or that he's buying votes?

BACHMANN: Well, Wesley would have to speak to that himself or what evidence that he has. But this is something that we've been hearing all across the country, that money is changing hands. And that's not how I do business.

In fact, I have told people, I have told people, I have told Evangelicals, I have told Tea Partiers, I don't -- I don't pay people to come out and be my supporters. That's not what I do, when we have Tea Party groups and -- and all of the rest. I don't do that because I -- I'm just a real person. I'm a simple person, but I'm a real person.

And I -- I'm not late to coming to this dance of being a conservative. I have always been a conservative.

But I think what is probably in my favor more than anything, in the last five years, I have been in the lion's den of Washington, D.C. And when I have had a chance, I didn't sit on my hands. I actively took on President Obama.

I was on the tip of the spear fighting President Obama. He knows me. I was his chief foe when it came to Obamacare, fighting him on the Dodd-Frank bill, fighting on illegal immigration. I was fighting when Newt Gingrich and a lot of these other guys were on board the same train trying to get this done.

Newt Gingrich, for instance, spent 20 years advocating for the health care mandate...

KING: All right...

BACHMANN: -- as recently as May of this year.

KING: All right...

BACHMANN: You can't possibly think these people are ever going to repeal Obamacare. They won't. Not in a million years.

I will. That's what we need, someone who will actually do what they say. And that's me.

KING: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, appreciate your time tonight. We'll keep an eye on you in the final 20 days of the campaign here in Iowa.

Thanks again, Congresswoman.

We'll see you soon.

And coming up: Jill Biden on whether her husband, the vice president, will run for the top job in 2016. Trust me, you will want to hear her answer.

And next: Who is Mitt Romney calling an unreliable conservative?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Zany is the word Mitt Romney used to describe Newt Gingrich in a "New York Times" interview today. That's shorthand, I guess, for this longer Gingrich critique Governor Romney delivered in a conversation with "The Washington Post."

Quote: "He's been an extraordinarily unreliable leader in the conservative world, not 16 or 17 years ago, but in the last two three years, and even during the campaign. The number of times he has moved from one spot to another has been remarkable. I think he's shown a level of unreliability as a conservative leader today."

So, will these increased Romney attacks hurt Gingrich? And, if so, will Governor Romney necessarily be the beneficiary here in Iowa and elsewhere?

Let's begin there in a conversation with our conservative contributor, Erick Erickson of RedState.com; and two veterans of Iowa Republican politics, conservative activist Becky Beach and Jim Kurtenbach, a former Iowa state Republican chairman, who was a Romney supporter in 2008. But neither Becky nor Jim has a candidate this time around.

Erick, I want to bring you into the conversation first by asking you the simple question: if you talk to people on the ground out here, and I'll bring in these two experts in just a minute, they do tell you they get a sense that Gingrich has plateaued, in part because of all these attacks. If Romney is the chief attacker, is he the chief beneficiary?

ERICK ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM: I'm not sure he is. You know, I'm not a big Romney fan, but I kind of feel sorry for him on these attacks because they need to be made. But when he makes them at Newt Gingrich, the Gingrich response is to say, "Well, you know, that's what they say about you, too."

So they're hurting Gingrich, but they're not helping Romney about -- I mean, the only crazier thing, the only zanier thing Romney could possibly do is maybe try out John Sununu and attack Newt Gingrich for blocking his tax increase in the '90s, but they did that, too.

KING: That will take us back to the '90s. I was there. Trust me: I'm not sure any of us want to go back there.

Let's listen. Speaker Gingrich wrapped up just a short time ago here in Iowa a press conference where this came up, the attacks on him as a faux conservative. Here's what Newt Gingrich had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: For somebody to THAT that's not a conservative voting record, I mean, at some point it becomes a joke. And so the question is, after we're done with the first wave of negativity, do people start shrugging it off and saying it tells you more about the person who would run the ad than it tells you about Newt Gingrich?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: All right. You're a conservative activist here in the state. Is Speaker Gingrich a conservative? Is he reliable?

BECK BEACH, CONSERVATIVE ACTIVIST: Yes. He's a conservative. He is.

KING: So Governor Romney's wrong?

BEACH: Well, no, I think that he's a conservative, and I think the main thing is trying to beat President Obama. I think both Romney and Gingrich are conservatives.

KING: OK. So when Governor Romney attacks as "he's zany, he's an unreliable conservative," No. 1, do you agree?

JIM KURTENBACH, FORMER IOWA STATE REPUBLICAN CHAIRMAN: Well, we're in heat of the battle right now in Iowa. You've been around Iowa politics for a long time, John. People are going to say things that are going to try and drive the numbers up. People have been up and down in the polls continually. So I don't think any of it is meant in a mean-spirited fashion. They're both good conservatives.

KING: It's not meant in a mean-spirited fashion. It's just meant to take -- I'm not quite sure I agree. It is mean-spirited but it has a direct act (ph). Am I right? And we've started in Davenport, and we've moved our way up the eastern part of the state. We moved a little bit to Cedar Rapids. Today we came across the state here to Ames.

When you talk to activists in those counties we visited, on the phone and through e-mail, they say Gingrich is still leading here, but they get the sense it's plateaued. Is that fair?

BEACH: I think that is fair. I think it's right. I think if the caucuses were today, he'd win. I'm not sure that will be the case in a couple of weeks.

KING: If not in a couple of weeks, who's benefiting right now?

KURTENBACH: Well, my guess is right now that all the candidates are rising up. I think what people are trying to do is settle down on the top three candidates in their minds; who they want to go into the caucuses with.

And Iowa has always been what I would call a win, place or show state. You don't have to win coming out of Iowa to move on, and we have a long history of that. So I think right now you're seeing consolidation of the top three candidates.

KING: The top three candidates. If you're in the bottom three, if you're say a Bachmann, a Santorum, especially, if you're in the bottom, then you're probably gone from the race because of fund- raising challenges.

One of the surprises is Ron Paul, who we know has a steady base of support. On a college campus like this you pick up his young base of support. Listen to Ron Paul here in New Hampshire today, talking about how well he's doing but also worrying out loud. He's the oldest Republican candidate in the field, almost worrying out loud this could take a while.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not looking forward to anything long and protracted. So I hope it ends rather quickly and we do real well in the beginning of the year. The organization is fantastic. Am I going to hold up doing all this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He's a funny guy, Erick Erickson, joking about "I don't know if I'm going to hold up if this thing goes on a long time." To what do you explain -- and I have a theory here, but I want you to go first -- Ron Paul not only holding his base. He seems to be growing at least a little.

I'm sorry, we lost Erick Erickson for a second there. How is Ron Paul, who is less out of the mainstream now than he was four years ago but still many people say, "Oh, he's not a real Republican. Why is he growing? Why is he a threat here?"

KURTENBACH: Well, I think it's the same reason that we see Governor Romney doing well, is both of them have been campaigning for a long time. People have heard their message, and they're consistent on their message. And what they're trying to do is move and secure period after period on...

KING: Now, if Romney's been consistent, you were for him in 2008. Why are you not for him now?

KURTENBACH: You know, I could be. I came out of another president. I was co-chair of the Republican Party through July, was with Tim Pawlenty for a while. Governor Pawlenty stepped out. He's backing Governor Romney now.

I may be back with Governor Romney before it's all over. But I decided to focus on a few other issues, travel around the state, really try and drive people into the caucuses so everyone can come out and participate.

KING: And how about you? You back in the day, we had conversations you wanted Governor Palin to run.

BEACH: That's true.

KING: If you look at Governor Perry now, you see a slight uptick in his poll numbers, a slight uptick in the buzz. He's doing this bus tour. And if you track the bus tour, he's starting in the western part of the state, going across the top of the state. If you track his bus tour, it takes you through a lot of the areas where Mike Huckabee did really well when he won this state four years ago. Governor Perry have a prayer?

BEACH: I don't think so.

KING: No.

BEACH: I don't. I mean, I think he can -- no, I don't think he'll finish in the top four. And I think what we need to see, or at least what a candidate would want to see is finishing in the top four, and I don't think he'll be in top four. I don't think he's done nationally. But I think that the top four will be Gingrich -- but not necessarily in this order -- Gingrich, Ron Paul, Romney, and Santorum.

KING: Santorum. You think Santorum will jump up that high?

BEACH: I think his -- going to all 99 counties has been very helpful, although I think that, to your point, Rick Perry and Bachmann are doing the same now, as well.

KING: We'll see if the old-fashioned way or the new-fashioned way works here in Iowa 20 days away. We'll check in. We'll check in to see if you keep that stack. Jim Kurtenbach, Becky Beach, thank you.

Erick Erickson, thanks to you, as well.

Up next, our top stories, and "The Number" that might make the difference right here in Iowa.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

There may be a break in the deadlock over extending the payroll tax cut. Tonight a Democratic source tells CNN the Democrats will drop their insistence on taxing incomes over $1 million to help pay for that extension. As you might know, Republicans have vehemently opposed that idea. AAA predicts a lot of Americans will be very busy traveling this holiday season. It predicts nearly 92 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home, and the majority will get to Grandma's by automobile.

And what are the chances Vice President Joe Biden might run for the White House in 2016? Well, here's what his wife Jill had to say when she was asked that question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JILL BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S WIFE: You know, I'd never say no to anything and -- but who knows? I mean, right now, really our focus is getting Barack re-elected and so that's what we're working hard on.

And I think Joe would be a great president, and his priorities are my priorities. I mean, the one reason I encouraged him to run last time was to get out of Iraq. I mean, that meant so much to me, having a son who was deployed. And so now my dream's come true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Mrs. Biden went on to say that, if her husband did run, it would be to continue what he and President Obama have already started.

And now let's move on to tonight's "Number," which is 60. That's because 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelicals in exit polls in 2008. That makes the evangelical constituency critical -- critical -- heading into these caucuses 20 nights from tonight.

And here's something else for you, a little trivia. If you come to Iowa, here's one of the things you can learn. What did the Romneys, Ann and Mitt, do on their first date? The answer's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Mitt and Ann Romney highlighting their 40-plus years of marriage. One way to drive home that point, a favorite story Ann Romney likes to tell on the campaign trail here in Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN ROMNEY, WIFE OF MITT ROMNEY: Our first date, by the way, was to "The Sound of Music." He took me out to a movie and dinner. And that was our first movie, "The Sound of Music."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's Ann Romney in Cedar Rapids last night. She's in Council Bluffs tonight. We'll see how effective she is on the campaign trail.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Erin is here with a preview. Erin, what's ahead? ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Well, John, interesting hearing Ann Romney there giving the personal side of Mitt Romney. Of course, as you've been talking about, three big events here in New York City today for Mitt Romney.

I can tell you I talked to someone who was at his lunch, which was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Apparently, 200 people, standing-room only, and at least half a million dollars raised for Mitt Romney at lunch alone. He's going to a dinner right now. So we're going to get the bottom line on that.

And then we're going to talk to Senator Kent Conrad from North Dakota. You know we've been talking about a decent proposal to get this payroll tax done and have it paid for. Well, tonight a big compromise by Democrats, huge compromise. They're not going to force that millionaire surtax through. So how will it get paid for? And will we get a deal?

Kent Conrad is going to come "OUTFRONT," give his point of view and also talk about that pipeline which Republicans want. He's a Democrat. May want that, as well. So we'll talk to him about that, all of that coming up at the top of the hour.

Back to you, John.

KING: Looking forward to that. Complicated chess on Capitol Hill. Senator Conrad, in the past, knows how to fix it. We'll see how that goes. Erin, we'll see you in just a few minutes.

And tonight here in Iowa, Mike Huckabee. You might remember him. He won the 2008 Republican caucuses. He's hosting a screening of an anti-abortion documentary called "The Gift of Life." Newt Gingrich, Governor Perry, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Senator Rick Santorum all there at that event, hoping -- not only watching the movie but maybe to court evangelical voters here in Iowa.

But now some prominent Christian leaders taking issue with the former speaker's candidacy, fearful that twice-divorced Gingrich doesn't share their values, perhaps.

Joining us now in Washington, Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land, and in San Diego, the pastor of Skyline Church, Jim Garlow.

Mr. Land, I want to start with you, because you set off a provocative debate this week with this letter. You wrote Speaker Gingrich an open letter and wrote this: "Promise your fellow Americans that if you're generous enough -- if they're generous enough to trust you with the presidency, you will not let them down and that there will be no moral scandals in a Gingrich White House."

Now subsequent to that letter, I don't believe he's responded to you, but tell me if he has. He did write a letter to an organization here in Iowa called the Family Leader. They wanted him to sign a pledge. He didn't sign their actual pledge, but he did write a letter promising "to uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others." Is that good enough for you?

RICHARD LAND, SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION LEADER: Well, it's certainly a very strong step in the right direction.

Look, forgiveness is part of the spiritual DNA of evangelicals. We believe in forgiveness. We believe in redemption. We believe in second and third chances. But forgiveness and trusting someone with the presidency are two different things entirely.

And I think that Newt Gingrich has made significant headway, but he does have still work to do, I believe, talking to evangelicals that I know, and who talk to me. He still has work to do, particularly with evangelical women.

KING: Pastor Garlow, is that fair? Does he have work to do with evangelical women, and is Mr. Land's inquiry, his -- I don't know whether I call it suspicion or doubt about Speaker Gingrich, is that fair game in your view?

JIM GARLOW, PASTOR, SKYLINE CHURCH: Well, I've had the advantage of being with him and talking about this issue with him probably about as much as anybody except his -- his pastor.

Forgiveness isn't instant; restoration is a process. He's moved beyond the instant; he's forgiven by God. We have a theology that allows for that. If there were no sin, there would no cross. That's why Jesus died on the cross for our sins. And he works through the restoration process, I think, in a really spectacular way.

I would just say this. We have to be cautious, because all of us come before God as sinners, and secondly, we have a Bible that's very restorative. King David violated a lot of things. So did Peter in his denial of Christ. So did Paul in the things that he did before he ever came to Christ. So people can be forgiven. They can be restored. And in my times with him, I believe he's well on that journey in really an awesome way.

KING: Mr. Land, is it just his personal history, or do you have some personal dealings with the speaker, former speaker that lead you to be somewhat suspicious?

LAND: I'm personally not suspicious. I've known the speaker a long time. I sense in him a grounding, and he seems to have found in his faith a forgiveness and a grounding that had perhaps eluded him in the past.

But I'm not the people -- I'm not the people he's trying to convince. He's got some work to do still with evangelical women. I think a lot of them would like to hear him say one time what John McCain said to Rick Warren: "The failure of my first marriage was the greatest regret of my life, and it was my fault."

KING: Do you think, Pastor Garlow, do you think Speaker Gingrich would benefit by giving, if not a speech, find some venue, a church venue, a faith venue to say something like that, to be more personal about his failings? GARLOW: I would encourage him to continue to talk as transparently as I've heard him talk over the last few years. I heard him talk in Orlando just a few days ago when he spoke openly of this. I heard him talk right here in San Diego to pastors. He says, "Look, I'm damaged goods. I'm not qualified to speak on some topics like I'd wish I would."

He's been very candid. And he's not been one who has dodged the reality that he can't defend his past actions. None of us do. He doesn't. That's the nature of sin. We don't defend that. We confess it, and for what it actually is.

So I think he's talked very openly on this topic, and I suspect he'll need to continue to do that. I believe that he will. He's not defensive on the topic. I found him to be extremely transparent.

And I recognize, too, on the conservative values issue -- I'm a guy who advocates for the family -- he's a guy who stands with us rock solid. His voting record on abortion is about 99 percent. It doesn't get a lot better than that. And he's committed to marriage being defined as one man/one woman. He's right on the fiscal issues. He's what we need in terms of a leader for the kind of biblical values I hold to personally.

KING: Let me ask you each quickly in closing about another issue. Back in 2008 we did see, especially among some Southern Baptists, that they wouldn't vote for Mitt Romney because they had questions about his Mormon faith. Mr. Land, to you first. There has been a pastor for the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas who used the term "cult."

Is Mitt Romney going to face this issue again, or should evangelical voters accept it and, if they agree with him on the issues, vote for him?

LAND: I think most evangelicals have come to terms with the fact they're either going to accept him and his Mormonism and that shouldn't be a disqualification for the presidency, or they think it is.

And my guess is that -- that most of those people who are evangelicals who don't vote for him in the primaries because he is a Mormon would vote for him in a general election. In fact, even Pastor Jeffers (ph), who you referenced, said that, if it came down to Obama and Romney, they would -- he would vote for Romney. I think that what Newt -- what Mitt needs to do is to just talk about the issues from his perspective and what he would do as president.

I think that the Mormon issue, that's pretty much been played out in terms of the Republican primaries. And people are either for him or against him.

KING: We'll watch it play out -- and we'll watch that play out in the weeks ahead here in Iowa and in South Carolina. Mr. Land, Pastor Garlow, we appreciate your time and your insights tonight.

Up next here, why the change in this election might be where I am tonight, on a college campus.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: It is finals week here at Iowa state, so as you might imagine, the students are a little tired and a tad frazzled, yet easy to find students actively involved in the Iowa campaign, which brings us to tonight's "Truth," and it's a threefold lesson.

Ron Paul is for real. His energetic student following is impossible to miss. Support for Republicans overall is much easier to find among students here than it was last time around. And it is very clear that team Obama sees that campus threat and is organizing early, even though the president has no primary challenger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Twenty days from now a lot of people think Ron Paul could have a chance at surprising people and winning this state. If so, the oldest candidate in the Republican field is counting on young people like you. Is that possible?

ZOEY CAMEZELL, YOUTH FOR RON PAUL: Oh, yes. Definitely, definitely possible.

KING: Why does a young person -- why is a young person attracted to Ron Paul?

CAMEZELL: He has a lot of things that young people look for such as civil liberties.

KING: Now you were a Cain supporter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

KING: So you're looking. You have 20 days to make a choice. What's your criteria?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The main things I'm looking for in a candidate is social issues is the main thing that I'm looking at. I've been pro-life my entire life pretty much. And just looking through candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum.

KING: Abortion, same-sex marriage?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those are the two main issues.

KING: Main ones there. And someone -- you're in the middle of finals, it's a busy time on campus. Are the campaigns interacting? Are you getting e-mails? Are you getting mail? Are you getting phone calls?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I'm getting a lot of phone calls from -- especially, I have friends in campaigns, and since they know that I have a lot of leeway when it comes to the college Republicans here at Iowa state, they're trying to get a hold of me on their campaign. I've had Rick Perry's people contact me. I've had quite a few people.

KING: They're thinking if you sign up, you can sway some other people?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I might be able to, yes.

KING: Now, as an Obama man, when you see all this Republican activity on campus, does it make you worry a little bit about next year?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, it's a purple state. Everybody knows that. It's -- Obama needs to win the state to win the election. And that's why we're organizing really well right now.

We have eight campaign offices, I believe, in the state. That is seven more than any other Republican candidate here. And we're in full swing. But you may not see it in the media right now, but the Obama campaign is in full swing, and it's going strong.

KING: How much have you been influenced by the debates as opposed to watching candidates when they come to Iowa or what they say in their TV ads or maybe their radio ads?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would actually say that when I -- I've tried -- I've seen every single candidate so far this year. I purposely try to actually talk to them on a personal level rather than just going by what the debates are saying.

KING: Is there anybody in the Republican field that, if they were the nominee, you would stay home and not vote for them? Or will you vote for whoever wins?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will vote for anyone that would be...

KING: Any one of this group who wins the Republican nomination?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

KING: How about you?

CAMEZELL: To me it really depends. For me, I want my civil liberties, and if I don't get my civil liberties, then I'll have to find another way.

KING: If Ron Paul doesn't win the nomination, do you think he should run as an independent?

CAMEZELL: Yes, I do. I think he -- I think he could hold his own as an independent. But I strongly believe that he'll get the Republican nomination.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We'll see you tomorrow night live from Sioux City. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.