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President Obama in Hawaii; Retailer Can't Fill Online Orders; Unrest in Syria

Aired December 23, 2011 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.

Tonight: President Obama's heading for Hawaii, but not before signing a tax cut to let millions of you keep more of your money.

Just in time for the holidays, snow and ice snarls travel, but, this year, it's in places you wouldn't expect.

And some of you won't be getting the gifts you ordered. A major retailer admits it has more online orders than it can fill.

We begin this hour -- as we begin it, Air Force One is heading west, carrying President Obama to meet his family in Hawaii. His last order of business before getting out of Washington today, signing the newly passed bill to keep your taxes from going up on January 1. The president also made a point of thanking voters for telling congressional Republicans to stop blocking the payroll tax cut extension.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You reminded people in this town what this debate and what all of our debates should be about. It's about you. it's about your lives. It's about your families.


KING: Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin was right there when the president said aloha and walked out of the Briefing Room just a few hours ago. Jessica is with us live tonight.

The president won this fight. The question is, how much of it carries over to the reelection year and the reelection campaign?


I will tell you why, because, first of all, this wasn't just a short-term victory over what he likes to call a dysfunctional Congress, in this case, House Republicans. But this also gave him a chance to act out the role he wants to play during the campaign. And that is champion of working Americans. There's not just the sound you played just now of the president, but you also heard him say this is a make-or-break moment for the working class, everyone deserves a fair shake or a fair shot. This fight put his campaign narrative into a real-life drama. And the Republicans handed him an opening to do that -- John.

KING: But many tough issues when they do come back. They will be back into taxes and spending, and they will be back into budgeting, and they will be back into tough spending cuts and all that. Do they think this is a turning point, and they will be able to work more with the Congress next year or do they think they just won this one, the speaker had no choice but to cave, but that those Tea Party members are going to come back looking for more fights?

YELLIN: They're certainly pleased and relieved that they got this opportunity. But everybody here knows that there's going to be a bitter battle in the new year. And you heard him say he wants to be able to extend this tax cut into a one-year deal with no drama in the new year. That's the first fight.

I will also expect that in the new year, you're going to see him do a lot of those we can't wait executive actions where the president makes unilateral actions. And why does he do that? He does that because he expects to find a gridlocked Congress in the new year. Don't expect a lot of kumbaya in this town during election season, John.

KING: I was going to say, if the New Year's resolution is no drama, he's not getting that one.


KING: Jessica Yellin live at the White House for us tonight, Jess, thanks.

Tonight, it's a safe bet most Americans more concerned with last- minute shopping than they are about worrying about next year's taxes.

CNN's Alison Kosik keeping track of the holiday sales rush.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, maybe all that holiday shopping procrastinating wasn't such a bad thing after all. If you waited until the last minute, there are some great deals out there.

Retailers are offering deep discounts in the final hours before Christmas. Ann Taylor is offering half off the entire store, 60 percent off at The Gap. You get the idea. And for anybody looking for a good deal, it's a shopper's paradise. But for retailers, it's a big scramble to get rid of their merchandise.

Analysts say retailers are aggressively slashing prices because consumers are more price-conscious than ever before. And even though the holiday shopping season has been fairly strong, momentum seems to have slowed a bit and stores are still sitting with a lot of inventory on their shelves. It's one reason your e-mail inbox may be getting pummeled with marketing from every store imaginable, because for retailers, time is ticking. Once the holidays end, stores, they know prices will have to be cut even more so they're not stuck holding too much merchandise -- John.

KING: I did get a lot of those e-mails today. Alison Kosik, thanks.


KING: On the campaign trail today, Iowa voters woke up to a new attack on Mitt Romney, this time not from a Republican candidate for president, but from the Democratic vice president, Joe Biden.

In a "Des Moines Register" op-ed essay today, Biden writes: "How could anyone forget the economic catastrophe brought about by the same policies Mr. Romney is proposing? His are the same policies that deregulated Wall Street and turned it into a casino that gambled recklessly with hardworking Americans' money."

Romney, who is campaigning not in Iowa, but in New Hampshire today, laughed off the criticism.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And you wonder in some respects what fantasyland he lives in. He needs to get out and meet with people. He seems to think that he and the president have made things better. They haven't made things better.


KING: Jennifer Jacobs is the chief political reporter for "The Des Moines Register." She joins us live from Iowa tonight.

Jennifer, we have a Republican race that's just a little over a week away and yet you have the Democratic vice president attacking Governor Romney. Maybe they're worried he's surging out there. What's your sense of why they wanted to pick this fight in Iowa right now?


The Republicans I talked to today said that this is a pretty clear sign that the White House is totally focused on Mitt Romney and they point out that Romney's entire strategy has been to talk about jobs and the economy.

So they read this as saying that the White House is pretty much on the defensive here. But the Democrats I talk to think that Vice President Biden just shredded Mitt Romney's closing arguments in the days before he -- right before he returns to Iowa. So we have got one of the purplest states in the nation. So, I don't think this little fight is going to be decided, at least not tonight.

KING: Well, we're going to have having this debate not just through the caucuses, but through next November. You're right about that, as Iowa will be competitive most likely in the general election. So let's talk about the caucuses. You mentioned Governor Romney is coming back. There's a new poll out tonight from the ARG group that shows Ron Paul in the lead, Governor Romney in close second place at 20 percent. Speaker Gingrich right behind that at 19 percent. Then you have Perry, Bachmann, Huntsman and Santorum rounding out the pack.

Let me start with this. Is this consistent with other polling? Or because this is a caucus, I'm not sure -- I'm not saying -- the pollsters, they are trying their best. I know that. But I'm not sure I necessarily trust it. Does that track what you're picking up on the ground?

JACOBS: Absolutely. Ron Paul's crowds are getting bigger and bigger as we get closer to January 3.

One of our most popular venues for campaign stops in Iowa are the Pizza Ranch Restaurants, and Ron Paul has actually outgrown the Pizza Ranch Restaurants. And our beat reporter says that she is talking to more and more Democrats and independent voters.

But when you talk about the polls, anybody who thinks that it's bogus that Ron Paul is at the top should look back to four years ago. Our pollster had it dead on. She predicted that Ron Paul was going to finish at 9 percent, and he actually came in at 10 percent in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. And the college campuses were closed then, too.

So, any of his rivals who are thinking that they're going to count on the college closures in order to soften Ron Paul's support probably shouldn't count on that.

KING: I think you're dead right. When I was out there a week ago, his supporters are locked in. And they're busy organizing.

So now we have this interesting campaign. Because Iowa moved up to January 3, are we getting a Christmas lull? I know most of the campaigns seem to switch their ads positive for I assume 24 or 48 hours. But how much of a Christmas lull before we're back in the bang-bang?

JACOBS: Well, you're right. We have got the ads that feature some of the relatives of the candidates. We have got some of the softer ads.

But then I know Ron Paul's campaign is going to be launching a big offensive right after the caucuses. So the lull is going to be pretty short.

KING: And any sense -- what's your biggest question or wild card going into the last week? Is there anybody left out there with a big endorsement? Any other big dynamic that could play out, or is this just now, since there are no debates, just fight it out the old- fashioned way for the last week?

JACOBS: Yes, it's so crazy. No one has any idea what's going to happen on January 3. I think people are predicting the top third is going to be maybe Ron Paul in the top and Mitt Romney in the top, but then after that, no idea.

KING: No idea. That's what makes it so much fun.

Jennifer Jacobs, the chief political reporter for "The Des Moines Register."

JACOBS: Exactly.

KING: You have got a busy 10 days ahead. We will see you soon, Jen. Thanks so much.

And if you're addicted to e-mail, and who isn't, a story about to come up here that will make you sit up and take notice. One company is telling its employees turn it off, sometimes. How about that? Details in just a few minutes.


KING: A disturbing new escalation today in Syria's bloody spiral of violence. For the first time in this year's unrest, suicide car bombs went off in Damascus.

A quick warning: Tonight's images are especially graphic. The two car bombings left behind charred metal, shattered buildings and body parts. The government says at least 44 people died and 166 were wounded. The big question, who's behind these deadly attacks?

Syria's government-run news agency reports the bombings carry -- quote -- "the blueprints of al Qaeda." But an opposition leader tells CNN the Syrian government itself staged the explosions to mislead the international community and to intimidate an Arab League team that is in the country to monitor human rights violations.

CNN can't send a correspondent into Syria. We're not allowed to do that by the government.

But Mohammed Jamjoom reporter is monitoring the situation from Cairo tonight.

Mohammed, the Syrian government says al Qaeda. I'm not one who tends to believe the pronouncements by the Syrian government. What do we know?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, as you said, the Syrian government blaming al Qaeda. But the opposition groups that we're speaking with in Syria, the activists there, they're laying the blame for this at the doorstep of Bashar al-Assad.

They are saying that al Qaeda does not exist in Syria. And they're saying that it's awfully convenient that at a time when Arab League monitors are in Syria that Bashar al-Assad would be making these claims. They're saying that this really fits a narrative that Bashar al-Assad has been trying to sell to the international community for quite some time.

In this 10 months that the uprising has been going on, where this brutal crackdown has been going on, Bashar al-Assad has said repeatedly that he and his troops there are fighting terrorists. Even though the international community is condemning Bashar al-Assad and his regime for the violence there, they maintain there is terrorism within Syria's borders.

The opposition there says that's baloney. They say Bashar al- Assad orchestrated this whole thing to try to convince the international community that terrorism existed, that al Qaeda exists there, but that is not that case. And they believe his brutal crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators there will persist -- John.

KING: Mohammed, you mentioned that Arab League team in there. Is there any sense that this will impact their work in any way as they try to document human rights abuses?

JAMJOOM: Well, there were pictures on Syrian state television earlier showing that the Syrian regime took members of this team to the blast site to show them the aftermath of the carnage.

And we spoke to one member of the team who said that this will not affect their work, that even though they saw the blast site, that they had meetings, they will continue to have meetings, that more members of the team will be coming into Syria in the coming days.

But one more interesting thing to mention is that the opposition in Syria is not a fan of the Arab League. They don't think this is an effective group. They don't think that having monitors in Syria is going to stop this crackdown. And so they have been continuing to call on the international community to intercede, to help in some way and to do what they believe the Arab League will not be able to do and help the opposition there and help rid that country of the Bashar al- Assad regime -- John.

KING: Mohammed Jamjoom live for us in Cairo, Mohammed, thank you.

And joining us now for more perspective on this escalating violence is Professor Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Professor Ajami, it's good to see you.

Let me start with the basic question. Al Qaeda in Syria?


The idea that al Qaeda would hit Syria and would hit it on that particular day, with the Arab League monitors arriving, is very, very dubious.

The Syrians control that city of Damascus. These place where these car bombs hit are top security installations and top security places. I think I'm really quite dubious about this. KING: And so if we are dubious, I think we share that belief. If anything, the Assad government makes me quite skeptical.

What do you see this as? If it is the Assad government doing this, what is the end, if you will?

AJAMI: Well, John, I really don't know. It's kind of an endless nightmare for the Syrian people.

As this is going on, as we're talking about these two car bombs, about 400 people have been killed in Syria the last week, 400 in one week. In one village by Idlib, 100 people were killed, 100 people in one village. And the imam, the prayer leader of that village was beheaded and his head was hung at the entrance of the mosque.

I think Bashar al-Assad is all in. He has decided to try to overwhelm this rebellion. He doesn't think he has to fear from the Arab League or from the international community.

KING: And you mentioned the killings this week. A global group, Avaaz, says they think now 6,000, the death toll is at, at least, over the past several months.

You and I have spoken about this several times. You view this as a moral challenge for the Arab League and for the world. Is there any sense, though, that those organizations, especially beginning with Syria's neighbors, are up to the challenge to get tougher?

AJAMI: Well, John, as we are pondering the holidays here upon us, we just ponder the ordeal of the Syrian people. Who would have thought that 10 months into this, there still would be this stalemate between this ferocious regime and between what has largely been a peaceful protest?

They keep praying for rain. They keep praying for the international community to come in. I think they're seized with a case of what I have dubbed a case of Libya envy. They hope to see an outcome in their country similar to the rescue mission and to the outcome that played out in Libya. But no rescue is coming for the Syrians, none that I could see over the horizon.

KING: We talked about this at the time. But when you see the graphic images we have today, when you have had throughout the week, discussed hundreds and hundreds killed from town to town, as you go across, I want our viewers to listen again to Bashar al-Assad talking to Barbara Walters a bit earlier this month, where he -- this is a man who denies everything and in doing so is in complete denial. Let's listen.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: We don't kill our people. Nobody kill -- no government in the world kill its people, unless it's led by a crazy person.

For me, as president, I became president because of the public support. It's impossible for anyone in this state to give order to kill.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: Do you feel guilty?

AL-ASSAD: I did my best to protect the people. So you cannot feel guilty when you do your best.


KING: That laugh at the end is creepy. I can't find a stronger word for it, at least not one that I can say on television, Professor Ajami.

Is it your sense -- he's obviously good at the propaganda part of this. Can Assad survive this?

AJAMI: I think this is really the fundamental question.

If he survive this challenge, if he rides out this protest, it's a pity and it's a shame on all of us. This man has crossed the Rubicon. This man, when he says only a crazy man would kill his own people or a criminal, I think -- and this is really what this regime has become -- it's a criminal regime.

The United Nations Commission for Human Rights has referred the case and recommended that the case of Bashar al-Assad and his regime be taken to the International Criminal Court. So we're talking about a criminal regime and a man, as you rightly said, in absolute denial. This is a man who is an eye doctor and his wife is a J.P. Morgan banker. And it tells us something about the oddness, the peculiar nature of these despotisms.

KING: Professor Ajami, I appreciate your insights tonight. I wish we had a more positive topic to talk about. But we will keep our eye on this story as we go forward. Thanks again, sir.

AJAMI: Thank you, John.

KING: A popular movie is the latest battleground in the war against counterfeit products. Just ahead, a top company takes its fight to a whole new level.


KING: Welcome back.


KING: Up next: the truth about whether the Tea Party is getting stronger or weaker.

And Donald Trump tonight no longer a Republican -- he'd like you to think it could have big implications for next November.


KING: Welcome back. Coming up this half-hour: the truth about whether the Tea Party is getting stronger or weaker. In about 15 minutes, we'll hear from a girl who wrote to President Obama about her school. He not only read it. We'll tell you about the big surprise that came next.

And if you're feeling stretched to find the perfect holiday gift, we may have found just what you're looking for.

It's a pleasure, you know, to stand front and center when you win.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because of this agreement, every working American will keep their tax cut, about $1,000 for a typical family. And that's -- translates into an extra $40 or so in every paycheck.


KING: Not so much when you lose. So give Speaker John Boehner credit for personally leading the House as he conceded defeat in the fight over extending payroll tax cuts.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The House will be in order.


KING: But here's tonight's "Truth." What comes next will no doubt test the speaker's leadership skills. But this fight is also a major defining line for the Tea Party members who pushed Boehner not to accept the two-month deal to begin with.

Truth is, the Tea Party has less influence now than it did at the beginning of the year. And the 2012 campaign will test whether it is a lasting major force in the GOP or more of a one-cycle sledgehammer.

In this last congressional showdown, Speaker Boehner made clear they had no choice but to accept the final payroll tax cut deal. And while there was grumbling, no one rushed back to Washington to derail it. Democrats sense a potential turning point.


REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: I think we might be more likely to get things done. I think that the Tea Party Republicans may have learned a lesson.


KING: Wishful thinking, perhaps. After not getting their way in this fight, many Tea Party lawmakers say they will regroup and fight on. But they will do so in a much tougher political climate. About a third of Americans have a favorable view of the Tea Party. Nearly half have an unfavorable view. And among independents, there's a nine-point drop year to year from last December to this December in the Tea Party's favorable rating.

Yes, the Tea Party had considerable influence in Washington this year. But it lost the last battle. And truth is, its influence will wane if there isn't a follow-up Tea Party punch in the 2012 cycle.

With us now to discuss this and more, CNN contributor Erick Erickson, editor in chief of the conservative blog; Steve Grubbs, an Iowa conservative activist who was chairman of Herman Cain's presidential campaign in Iowa. Also here, Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, Maria Cardona.

Erick, I want to ask you first, were you surprised that nobody came back -- and I want to play for you -- we had Congressman Mike Kelly from Pittsburgh area on the show last night. He was fighting mad about Speaker Boehner backing down, and he said this.


REP. MIKE KELLY (R) PENNSYLVANIA: I may take that road. I may get in my car right now and drive down. I'm that -- I am that -- I'm just so determined that we have to get this fixed for the people that sent us.


KING: That drive down would have been to object and to essentially knock the unanimous consent that they handled this deal with off the tracks. Nobody did that in the end. Why?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Because, you know, frankly, most of the conservatives I've talked to, John, kind of gave up a couple of weeks ago and realized that both sides were kind of being dumb about it. Not both sides Democratic and Republican: both sides House and Senate Republicans.

The Republicans in the House got played; they got outmaneuvered. They tried to be nicer than they probably should have. And you know, to be honest with you, if you look at the voting record of so-called Tea Party Republicans in Congress, about three-quarters of them vote with leadership more often than they do the Republican study committee, which is kind of the -- the conservative leaders in the House.

So most of the Tea Party Republicans in Congress are more leadership guys than they are conservatives.

KING: Started drinking the Kool-Aid. I don't know what happens next.

Steve Grubbs, tell us about the ground out in Iowa. Is it a sense that the Tea Party will have as much influence in the caucuses 11 days from now as the Tea Party did in any big contest involving Republicans in 2010?

STEVE GRUBBS, IOWA CONSERVATIVE ACTIVIST: The Tea Party doesn't necessarily organize itself behind one candidate or the other. But candidates who -- who reflect the views of the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, maybe Rick Santorum, and to a lesser extent, ironically, Ron Paul, I think that they will have a fairly strong showing.

Nevertheless, I think you will see Mitt Romney with either a first or second-place finish. And Newt Gingrich, I would never consider him a Tea Party candidate. And he'll be up there third, fourth, somewhere in there.

KING: It's an interesting point. I'll come back to it, but I want to bring in Maria to the conversation with this. Obviously, if you're a Republican running right now, you still know there's a Tea Party element out there. And as Steve notes, they're split among the candidates. So Ron Paul is relying on his son, who is a Tea Party hero, Rand Paul, on television. Watch this.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The Tea Party began as a protest against politicians who supported more debt and bigger government. My father, Ron Paul, stood against the establishment and against government bailouts. He's always stayed true to his principles and convictions.


KING: If there's one guy who's kept his Tea Party base, I would think Rand Paul. Is that an effective ad?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it is, depending on who you're talking to. And right now, it seems like most the Republicans, including Ron Paul, are talking to the conservative base in Iowa. That's why we see his numbers are really surging in Iowa.

But I think the problem is, John, that the Tea Party now is going -- especially going into the 2012 election. They're talking to everybody, whether they want to, whether they know it or not. And this is what -- what really hurt them, this last battle, because independents, as you noted, their favorability among independents has gone down.

I think where they really started losing the argument -- and they were part of having Democrats really focus on debt and the deficit when they weren't really focused on it.

So you know, many Democrats have conceded that they were able to change the conversation, but they were not able to change their "it's my way or the highway" mechanism that in Washington just does not work. Especially when you have to choose between a middle-class tax cut and it going away and what they've talked about, which is no more new taxes for millionaires and billionaires. That was an untenable argument for them. And that's why they lost it. KING: Is it somewhat inevitable, Erick, that the Tea Party is loosely defined. The Massachusetts Tea Party is very different from the Georgia Tea Party, very different from the San Diego Tea Party or the Arizona Tea Party or the Iowa Tea Party.

Is that part of the issue here in the sense that it's loosely fit? You can be a protest movement and have a big impact on an election but then, when you're actually part of the governing coalition, as Steve notes, it's not really an organization, per se?

ERICKSON: Right. And there's a little more to it than that, as well. What was the defining issue of the Tea Party movement? It was the president's health-care plan. And then after the president's health-care plan, it was spending.

Now the Tea Party movement has broken off. It is -- they have different opinions on how to handle unemployment benefits, different opinions on how to handle the payroll tax and different opinions on the candidate who's best to pit against Barack Obama. The Tea Party movement really is a very divided movement right now and doesn't have one central issue rallying everything around it.

KING: Steve, you mentioned the state of play out there. I want to show a new American Research Group survey that's out today. And if you look at different polls, some of them are public like this ARG poll. We see some private polls we get from the campaigns and some of the political committees. There's some conflict in them.

But here's the ARG poll. It's a very reputable polling group, Iowa caucus goers. Ron Paul, 21; Mitt Romney, 20; Gingrich, 19; then Perry, Bachmann, Huntsman. I'm surprised at that Santorum number, 4, at the bottom. He's been working pretty hard out there.

And you talk to a lot of people on the ground. When I was out there last week, they think he's doing better than that.

Is that, in your sense, a roughly fair state of play with a little more than a week to go?

GRUBBS: No, too many in the media are focusing on those topline numbers. They include 22 percent non-Republican voters, independents. And when you actually dig into the details of that survey, you look at just likely Republican voters, you see Ron Paul in third. And when you look at likely caucus voters, including all -- everybody they surveyed, Ron Paul was -- I shouldn't say likely. I should say those that were most likely, Ron Paul is in third in that, as well.

So -- so you have to dig into those numbers a little bit to see a more accurate view of them. And I do think Santorum is doing better than 4, and I think that's because having 22 percent non-Republicans in the survey distorts the view of the survey.

KING: That is a debate about what new voters are going to show up, in the sense that people can change their registration and come in, Ron Paul -- like Barack Obama did four years ago. A lot of the Ron Paul people say, "Watch, we're going to surprise you. We're going to bring new people to the equation." You're a bit skeptical?

GRUBBS: Absolutely. You know what? I watch this. This is my fifth presidential campaign. And, you know, roughly 100,000 people are going to vote. That's not that many. And no matter what happens, every cycle they try to bring new people in. And it's not that many. You might have 5 percent independents, but it will be nowhere near 22 percent.

And so even though I have a lot of respect for ARG, I don't think that the topline numbers in the survey anywhere -- I don't think they reflect the -- what's actually going on, on the ground.

KING: One of the questions right now is, like Newt Gingrich before him and like other candidates before that, whether Ron Paul can take the heat. And the heat has been about something he complains about, because these things are 20, sometimes 25 and 30 years old.

But Ron Paul, when he was out of Congress, had the Ron Paul newsletter. I'm going to hold up one of them right here. Congressman Ron Paul is the title on it. And it's essentially advice, political advice and financial advice, and people paid to subscribe for it. There are some pretty racy and racist things if you read some of these letters.

Here's one, just an excerpt from the one I just held up for you here: "I've been told not to talk, but these stooges don't scare me. Threats or no threats, I've laid bare the coming race war in our big cities. The federal homosexual cover-up on AIDS."

Ron Paul spokesman Jesse Benton sent this to CNN today: "Dr. Paul did not write that solicitation, and the signature is an auto pen. It does not reflect his thoughts and is out of step with the message he has espoused for 40 years. Dr. Paul has given literally thousands of speeches to hundreds of thousands of people, and he has never used such rhetoric. He disavows the newsletter and abhors that content."

Erick Erickson, I take Jesse Benton at his word, and he speaks for Dr. Paul in that statement. However, you're a candidate for high office. You're -- he was a politician back in the day. This letterhead has his name on it. And it may well be an auto pen, but that is his signature. It may be a copy, but that's his signature. Anything that happens in your public life is fair game when you're running for president, no?

ERICKSON: Right. Yes, very much so, but you know, John, it's more complicated than that, because ten years ago, when confronted by "The Dallas Morning News," Ron Paul said he wrote some of the stuff that was in those newsletters. And now ten years later, saying he didn't.

And frankly, some of the stuff that was in those letters, contrary to what Jesse says, are consistent. A lot of the statements Ron Paul made about Jews and Israel, he's made in the past three years on Iranian television.

I mean, if -- you know, if Republicans are going to attack Barack Obama for being in Jeremiah Wright's church for 20 years, saying the CIA created AIDS to kill black men, then Ron Paul having a newsletter with his name on it and no other author, written in first person, saying that gay men want to poison the American blood supply with AIDS, that's got to be fair game, too.

KING: Steve, has it had much of an impact out there?

GRUBBS: This is the reason I think Mitt Romney is going to finish first or second in Iowa. It's because, as the focus or the heat comes on the other Republican candidates, each one of them slowly starts to have issues pop up. But then, you know, Romney has been running for five years and doesn't really have any of these types of issues that -- that are really glaring.

And so a lot of Republicans I talk to say, you know, "Mitt Romney doesn't excite me. But you know what? He doesn't have the baggage the others have, and I think he can beat Barack Obama."

KING: I need to call it time out here. Maria, I owe you some time. It's a Republican race, so I give the Republicans more time tonight. I'll owe you a bit.

CARDONA: Sounds great.

KING: Erick, Steve, thanks, as well.

Ahead, new concerns about who controls the weapons picked up during the war to take down Muammar Gadhafi, and fears those weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Plus, why a retail giant now says, guess what? Cancel your Christmas order. If you bought gifts online this season, stay with us. We'll give you the tough news.


KING: If you're the president of the United States, you get a lot of mail and not just at Christmastime. Every day, President Obama reads ten letters selected by his staff and then personally writes back to the senders. Some of these exchanges, as well as the responses, are collected in the book entitled "Ten Letters." One of the letters came from a young girl who wrote about her school. She not only got an answer, the president mentioned her in a speech last year.


OBAMA: I got a letter recently postmarked Covington, Kentucky. It was from Na'Dreya Lattimore, 10 years old, about the same age as Sasha. And she told me about how her school had closed so she enrolled in another. And she closed by saying this, "One more thing," she said -- it was a long letter. "You need to look at us differently. We are not black. We're not white, biracial, Hispanic, Asian or any other nationality. No," she wrote, "we are the future."

Na'Dreya, you are right. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Na'Dreya Lattimore joins us now along with the author of "Ten Letters," Eli Saslow.

Na'Dreya, let's start with the basic question. Why did you decide -- what troubled you so much that you thought you needed to ask the president of the United States for help?

NA'DREYA LATTIMORE, WROTE LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, what troubled me the most was education. The education that I was getting in my school, it wasn't fair enough for anybody at all.

KING: Wasn't fair enough for anybody at all. Here's what you wrote in part of your letter: "Nobody is getting the same education. Sometimes I think if you're really smart, you get punished. Then there are kids who can't keep up, and we wind up having to take extra classes that we do not need. They took away our social studies class and are giving us an extra math class for them to catch up. Can you fix this so that everybody can be in the right class? I know you're busy, but I could really use your help on this."

So because of the struggling students, you feel at times you're being kept behind?


KING: And when the president responded, did you get the sense that he can help you? Can a president of the United States help with that problem or does that have to be dealt with locally?

LATTIMORE: I thought, because the fact that when I talk to people locally, nobody really listened. So I went over their heads and decided to write the president.

KING: Na'Dreya, stand by for a second. I want to bring Eli Saslow into the conversation. You have this young girl, remarkable young girl writes to the president. What did you learn in writing the book about the process? How did -- how is it that her letter gets to the president, as opposed to whether it's another student or whether it's somebody else out there?

ELI SASLOW, AUTHOR, "TEN LETTERS": It really takes an army. The mail used to be handled inside the White House before the anthrax scare. And then they moved it off site to this sort of clandestine, secret office building in downtown D.C., where every day 1,500 volunteers and 50 staff members sort through this deluge of mail. They get 20,000 letters a day.

And what they look for are sort of representative samples. So, you know, if it's something that's in the news right then, education often in the news, that's something that may well go to his desk. If half the mail is negative, half is positive, they want to share with the president five positive, five negative letters. So Na'Dreya's -- Na'Dreya's note stood out and made its way to his desk. KING: And how about you when you're doing this research? The president obviously mentioned some of these things in speeches. Some of those speeches are campaign speeches. He's trying to get votes in a reelection campaign. When you're working on this book project, do they let you see the good, bad and the ugly? Or did they select what you got to see?

SASLOW: No, they let me see the good, bad and the ugly. I mean, there are letters that I read, certainly, from a conservative in Texas who wrote a very critical e-mail late at night to the president and was shocked to receive a handwritten reply.

KING: And Na'Dreya, as you go through this, you received a response from the president. He's mentioning you in speeches. Are things in your school better today than they were when you sent the letter or do you still have the same problem?

LATTIMORE: Well, they are better today because we have now got split into groups of -- at our own level.

KING: Did the president have anything to do with that or is that just -- that just the way it played out?

LATTIMORE: I'm not sure. I mean, he might have, because from what he wrote in his letter telling me that he was going to try his best to change it.

KING: Eli, you mentioned some of the critical. Here's one here from Thomas Ritter. This may be the one you're talking about, on health care.

"Dear Mr. President, I hope you read this and that you stop and listen to the American people. This bill has caused such a divisive, derisive and toxic environment. I teach and watched as excited students were motivated by the promise of hope. The reality is that any citizen that disagrees with your administration is targeted and ridiculed. This is exactly the kind of a thing you ran against, isn't it? Do the right thing and not the political thing. Suggest a bill that all Americans can support." That's in the middle of the health- care debate.

And the president writes this response: "Dr. Mr. Ritter, I received your letter and appreciate your concerns about the toxic political environment right now. I do have to challenge you, though, on the notion that any citizen that disagrees with me has been targeted and ridiculed or that I have made fun of 'tea baggers.' I think a fair reading is that I have gone out of my way to listen to legitimate criticism and defend strongly the right of everyone to speak their mind, including those who call me a socialist or worse. I sincerely believe that the health-care reform bill was the right thing for the country. It certainly wasn't the smart political thing."

So a guy who's harshly critical gets a response from the president of the United States who does a little combat with him politely, and so then, Mr. Ritter thinks what? SASLOW: He didn't think it was from the president. The first thing that he thought when he got it was that some friend had pulled an elaborate frank. I mean, he looked at hand writing samples on the Internet, trying to compare the letters, the president's hand writing. He noticed smudge patterns that he thought were consistent with a left-handed writer.

And finally when the White House called to ask, "Did you get the response," he realized it was from the president. And then he's a teacher, so he took this note into his school, showed it to the class, and sort of started this lesson on civility in the country and discourse.

KING: Na'Dreya, when the president gave that speech, or when you wrote the letter, you were 10. You're 11 now. It must be pretty cool to be mentioned by the president of the United States and to get a note back from him.

LATTIMORE: Yes, it is. It is very neat. I was very surprised when it first happened, though.

KING: And tell me, when I talk to Na'Dreya Lattimore in 15 or 20 years from now, where are you going to be?

LATTIMORE: Well, I want to be a forensic scientist, so I want to keep my grades up and I want to try and make it there the best I can.

KING: You want to go to M.I.T., I heard?


KING: I'm from Boston so if you go to M.I.T., can I make you a Red Sox fan? LATTIMORE: I'm not sure about that.

KING: Very diplomatic answer, Na'Dreya. Maybe you should be secretary of state. Thanks for your time today, Eli Saslow, as well. It's a fascinating book. It's a glimpse inside the operation. And as we've said, the president likes to say he's trapped in a bubble. This is one way he reaches out to get out.

Na'Dreya, Eli, thanks very much.

Coming up, the Donald says he's no longer a Republican. Why should you worry about that, and what does it mean for next year?

Also coming up, a new warning from a popular retail giant. If you ordered gifts online, you'll want to stick around.

Plus, finding the perfect holiday gift causing you headaches? We'll show you how to get this outfit -- yes, that outfit -- under your Christmas tree.


KING: This important political news just in to CNN. a setback for the Republican presidential campaign of the Texas Governor Rick Perry. CNN is told he has been disqualified from the Virginia primary ballot.

Governor Perry and other Republicans had to file their signatures to get on the Virginia ballot earlier this week. It is March 6, that primary. We're told tonight some of those signatures have been disqualified. Governor Perry will not be a candidate on the March 6 Virginia Republican presidential primary ballot.

We continue to track that development and other developments.

Kate Bolduan is here with more of the latest news you need to know right now.


Hey, everybody.

The State Department announced today it's in talks with the Libyan government to purchase shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from militia members and others who picked them up during the NATO-led attack against Moammar Gadhafi's forces. There's fear the weapons could pose serious threats to airline travel, among other things, around the world if they fall into the hands of terrorists or insurgents.

And in holiday news, the holiday shoppers are racing against the clock. And if you bought presents at Best Buy, you may need to plan for a little more time, unfortunately. The electronics retail giant announced it's not going to be able to fulfill some customers' online orders, including those who made purchases more than three weeks ago. In a statement on its Web site, Best Buy blamed overwhelming demand for hot products. And finally, a gift for that person on that Christmas list you just can't ever find the perfect gift for. You may have seen this guy -- and I emphasize, may, because I have not -- during NBA halftime shows.

He bills himself as Slinky Man, and now he's offering this wonderful outfit for sale on eBay. There, of course, is a catch. There always is. The asking price probably will shock you: $1 million. So far, according to the eBay listing, he has 11 offers which they have not disclosed. And by the way, the NBA finally tips off its lockout-shortened season on Christmas.

And John, you have the moment we missed. I have the moment you may have wished you had missed. As you know, Donald Trump, he's no longer registered as a Republican. We just found out that. An aide says Trump just switched to "unaffiliated" to preserve his right to run for president if he isn't satisfied with the eventual Republican nominee.

He's like the candidate that is never the candidate, the Energizer Bunny of the non-candidates.

KING: So he -- he switched his party affiliation so that we would have a reason to talk about him. Oh, no, but that would be cynical of me. Wouldn't it?

BOLDUAN: A little bit.

KING: You know, he could afford the Slinky suit.

BOLDUAN: There's your buyer.

KING: He can afford the Slinky mask. Yes, there you go.

BOLDUAN: Genius!

Now, I really would love to know what everyone thinks about this outfit, because while it is entertaining...

KING: I've actually -- I've actually seen it...

BOLDUAN: Well, of course you have. You've been to every NBA game.

KING: I've seen it. It's -- yes, I don't. No, I can't do that.

BOLDUAN: Please, keep doing that.

KING: No, I can't. No, that was it. That is all you're going to get out of me.

All right. Our moment you missed hasn't actually been on television yet, but ABC posted this clip from tonight's "20/20" holiday special in which President Obama fesses up to Barbara Walters about his worst character trait. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARBARA WALTERS, ABC'S "20/20": What's the trait you most deplore in yourself and the trait you most deplore in others?

OBAMA: Laziness.

WALTERS: You're lazy?

OBAMA: You know, it's interesting. There is a deep down underneath all the work I do, and I think that there's a laziness in me. I mean, it's probably from, you know, growing up in Hawaii, and it's sunny outside, and sitting on the beach.

WALTERS: Sounds good to me.



BOLDUAN: Do you believe that? That seems like a cop-out answer. Lazy?

KING: You're around politicians all of the time. Those are tough questions when they ask you those things. Anything you say, you know, all right, so you don't buy that one. The president was also asked, what's your biggest peeve with the first lady?

BOLDUAN: What was the answer?

KING: What do you think the answer was?

BOLDUAN: Shopping. What?

KING: "I'll take a pass on that one."

BOLDUAN: See? He is a very smart man.

KING: Yes. That's why there's a hot meal waiting for him when he gets to Hawaii.

BOLDUAN: And he's going to be allowed to come to Hawaii.

KING: Yes, he's still allowed to come to Hawaii. Kate Bolduan, thanks. To everybody out there...

BOLDUAN: Oh, the Slinky man is staying (ph) home.

KING: ... have a very, very, very, very merry Christmas. Please stay safe. Enjoy your family. We'll see you soon.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.