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JOHN KING, USA

Interview with Mitt Romney; Gingrich Falling in Polls; Standoff With Iran; Interview with Gary Johnson

Aired December 28, 2011 - 18:00   ET

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


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for joining us. I'm Candy Crowley. John King is off tonight.

Mitt Romney talks with CNN, answering Newt Gingrich's latest attacks and weighing in on whether he'd vote for Ron Paul.

Also, we will talk with a former Republican who says he is switching parties as a matter of principle, or is it political opportunism?

And on the high seas, what could become the biggest international crisis of the new year, a whopper that will hit your car right in the gas tank.

Good evening from Des Moines.

We are only six days out from the Iowa caucuses, and, politically, at least, the ground here is shifting. Tonight, Mitt Romney's riding on top of a new CNN poll of Iowa Republicans. He's also laughing off the scathing criticism coming at him from Newt Gingrich.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer climbed aboard Romney's campaign bus today and asked about the attack ads that Romney supporters are running against Gingrich.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is part of the process. I'm not -- we could all wish that we had a utopian-type political process, but the campaign process that exists is the way it's been for a long time.

if you're going to get in a campaign like this, you've got to have broad shoulders.

And if you can't take on the negative that's part of a primary, you're sure as heck not going to be ready for what's going to come from Barack Obama. If you can't handle the heat in this kitchen, wait until Barack Obama's Hell's Kitchen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Newt Gingrich appears to be trying to have it both ways when it comes to negative ads, letting others do the dirty work for him while staying positive in public appearances.

CNN political correspondent Jim Acosta spent the day with the former speaker.

Jim joins us now from a few hours northwest of here in Spencer, Iowa -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Candy.

That's right. Newt Gingrich said again today at an event in Mason City, he just said it a few moments ago here in Spencer, that he will continue to wage what he considers to be a positive campaign. But you can only look at what also is flying out here in Iowa to see that some of what's happening on behalf of the former speaker is anything but positive.

Keep in mind that this is going on for the last couple of weeks, that Gingrich has said he would run a positive campaign, but in just the last 24 hours, take a look at this mailer that has come out from a pro-Gingrich super PAC. It's one that was little known up until 24 hours ago. It's called Strong America Now, and it shows -- the mailer shows basically an attack on Mitt Romney.

And in the mailer, it says that Mitt Romney is the second-most dangerous man in America, after Barack Obama. And the former speaker was asked about this at a media avail in Mason City earlier today. Here's what the former speaker had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would discourage them from sending out that kind of negative information. I think that is wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: So there you go. He said he would discourage that organization from putting out that kind of information. He didn't condemn it, something that he challenged Mitt Romney to do about his own super PAC about a week ago.

So it's interesting to see the former speaker try to have it both ways. Candy, he's sort of in a box right now because he would like, I would imagine, to go after Mitt Romney and go after Ron Paul, but that would mean going back on his pledge to stay positive.

So I asked the former speaker at that same media avail, why don't you just put that aside and go after your rivals? Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Why not just coming out fighting for this nomination?

GINGRICH: I think if you saw the crowd here -- I know this is hard for some of you to cover. You can fight in a positive way. You can be very strong in a positive way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: And so now Newt Gingrich finds himself in a box with less than a week to go until the Iowa caucuses. As you know, in that new CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll, his numbers have eroded fairly dramatically, but yet he has this pledge that he says he's sticking to, to run a positive campaign. As we all know, sometimes those negative attacks can work. They have worked against him rather well in the last couple of weeks, Candy.

CROWLEY: They certainly seem to have done so, you're right. Jim, thanks so much.

Nice guy or not, Newt Gingrich is plunging in the polls. A new CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll of likely primary voters shows him down nearly 20 points. But that's not the biggest surprise.

For that, we want to bring in CNN political director Mark Preston.

Mark, the top of the poll is interesting, Mitt Romney back up there, the 25 percent he seemed to have had for a year a half, two years now. But there are other things in the poll in the kind of bottom tier you found interesting.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. The headline tomorrow is the rise of Rick Santorum, the fall of Newt Gingrich.

But if you look a little bit farther down into the poll, you look at the middle of the pack, and what I found interesting in this is that if you look at what happened to Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann over the last month, we did a poll just a few weeks ago of Iowa caucus-goers, asked them where they were on the race, asked the same question again in this new poll that is released, it shows neither Rick Perry nor Michele Bachmann have moved the needle.

The big question goes here in Iowa, if they haven't moved the needle in the last couple of weeks, is there enough time right now for them to get enough support to have a strong showing in Iowa? And the big argument is, Candy, we are only six days away from the caucuses. And if they don't show strong, is their campaign over?

CROWLEY: Sure. But they would probably point out there still are a large number of people who say I could change my mind or I'm a little undecided. It's under 50 percent, but it's pretty high, 40 percent. How about in New Hampshire? There's also some stagnation there for some folks.

PRESTON: There is. There is. Jon Huntsman, who has staked his whole campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, kind of following the John McCain model in 2008, he is not participating in Iowa caucuses, he's not campaigned here, has shown no interest in Iowa.

He's in New Hampshire right now campaigning. If you look at the poll we did in New Hampshire, again, we did it just a few weeks ago, compared it the results of our poll that has just been released a few hours ago, it shows that he hasn't moved the needle.

Jon Huntsman, who has staked his whole presidential campaign on the state of New Hampshire, has not moved the needle one bit.

CROWLEY: Not as much about who win sometimes in these early contests, as to who's done?

PRESTON: That's absolutely right, the winnowing process.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much, Mark. Appreciate it.

Drama on the high seas that could affect what you pay for gas. The Navy's using strong words of warning to Iran over military exercises that threaten to disrupt oil shipments in the Persian Gulf.

CNN's foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, has been closely monitoring the escalating situation.

Jill, we want to start with this narrow, yet really vital channel of water known as the Strait of Hormuz. What's going on there right now that the U.S. finds so threatening?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Candy, we have got another -- maybe they can fix that audio, and we will be back.

CROWLEY: We're clearly having some technical difficulties here. We will get back to Jill later on in the show.

But every year, the Gallup poll asks Americans to name the men and women they most admire. The results just came out. And we're counting down the top five for you tonight.

Number five on the list of most admired men is businessman Warren Buffett. This is the first year he's cracked the top 10. Number five on the list of most admired women is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

We will have the next names on the list in about 10 minutes.

But next, the Gingrich campaign reacts to what Mitt Romney just told Wolf Blitzer about the state of the race for the GOP nomination.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Mitt Romney's been joking about the Newt Gingrich's campaign failure to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in the Virginia primary. He compares it to the classic TV episode of "I Love Lucy," where Lucille Ball falls behind while working on the assembly line at a chocolate factory.

On Romney's campaign bus today, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Romney to get a little more serious about Gingrich's campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: If he couldn't even get on the Virginia ballot, couldn't get the 10,000 signatures he needed, what does that say about his campaign?

ROMNEY: Well, you know, I can't speak to his campaign, but obviously that's his home state. And we knew what the rules were when we got into this. We had to organize our effort in each state to get on the ballot. You've got to be able to play by the rules if you're going to become the nominee that beats Barack Obama.

BLITZER: I interviewed him yesterday, Newt Gingrich. So, let's go through a couple of points he made and give you a chance to respond. Because he wanted to really challenge you to a one-on-one no holds barred, no moderator like me, you know, just a full debate, just the two of you.

And I said to him, you know, I'm going to speak with Governor Romney tomorrow. Look in the camera. Tell us what you want to say to him.

And he looked in the camera and he said this.

And let me read it to you, what he said. He said: "Mitt, is what you run" -- he said, "All I would say, Mitt, is you want to run a negative campaign or attack people. At least be man enough to own it."

ROMNEY: I don't know why he's so angry. Look, this is a campaign about the things we believe in. I believe the country's being led in a very unfortunate and destructive way by a president that doesn't really understand our economy or America. I can get America working again. That's why I'm working.

As for a one-on-one with Newt Gingrich, if he and I end up being the two finalists, we'll have this opportunity. But right now, I don't know, we debated maybe ten times. We'll do more debates in January, but until he and I are the other two finalists, why there are others who so deserve to be on the stage. Ron Paul, I think, is leading here in Iowa as of today, so the idea that is all about Newt or all about Mitt is just not right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Joe DeSantis is communications director for Newt Gingrich. He joins us now with reaction to Mitt Romney's interview with Wolf Blitzer.

Joe, let me ask you first, does Newt Gingrich think this is a race that has boiled down to him or Mitt Romney?

JOE DESANTIS, GINGRICH CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, obviously, that's up to the voters.

But if you look at the national polling, I think that Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich are tied around the mid-20s, and everyone else is in the low teens or below. But, obviously, you know, we started in Iowa and go to New Hampshire and then we head to South Carolina and Florida, where we're very strong.

We think that, by the end of Florida, where we still have, I think, about a 15- to 20-point lead, that it is going to come down to a two-person race between Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich.

CROWLEY: Governor Romney criticized Gingrich for not playing by the rules when it comes to getting on the Virginia ballot.

I know you all think differently. You say, look, we had a guy who quite frankly, I think the speaker said, was guilty of fraud, kind of making up the signatures. But doesn't that point out that there is a weakness within the chain of command in the Gingrich campaign?

DESANTIS: Well, what it says is that we made a mistake in Virginia, and we're accepting responsibility for that. We are trying to rectify it.

But it's not a fatal one. It's only one state. We think that by the end of the process, only two out of the six candidates who tried to get on got on. We don't think that the state of Virginia is going to, in the end, tolerate that. So whether it's through a write-in campaign or by letting the other candidates on, we're encouraged to think that in the end Speaker Gingrich will be on the ballot.

But, you know, even if not, there are a number of other states that...

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: I'm sorry. Joe, let me just interrupt you. Why do you think he can get -- first of all, there can't be write-ins in Virginia, and the state party has said, look, it was fair. You didn't come up with enough signature.

Do you have some reason to be hopeful about this?

DESANTIS: We're not saying that it was unfair. We just think that ultimately the legislature and the governor of Virginia are going to err on the side of democracy and giving the people of Virginia a chance to vote for the candidate that they want.

CROWLEY: And let me ask you, Joe, in our latest poll, which I'm sure you have seen, Speaker Gingrich has dropped 19 points in less than a month. Why is that?

DESANTIS: Well, $9 million in negative advertising. You know, Iowa's very a small media market. You can basically blanket the airwaves if you have enough money.

And I don't care what candidate's in the race. If they have $9 million of negative advertising against them, they're going to drop in the polls. I think that considering we have been outspent 30-1 on the air, that still being very competitive for fourth place right now, and, frankly, you know, really not that far off from being in the top tier in Iowa, still is pretty impressive. If we can survive Iowa, we can move on to, like I mentioned before, South Carolina and Florida, where we're much stronger, have very large leads.

CROWLEY: What is surviving Iowa? What is your definition of surviving Iowa?

DESANTIS: Oh, I think anywhere in the top five would be surviving Iowa.

CROWLEY: Well, Speaker Gingrich had said at one point early on, "I think it's pretty clear I'm going to be the nominee." And now, you know, you're down to, we're going to be in the top five.

Doesn't that suggest to you that his fortunes have shifted a little?

DESANTIS: Well, we do think that he's going to be the nominee after South Carolina and Florida. Like I said, we are much stronger there in South Carolina and Florida. We hold double-digit leads there.

We have a much more extensive organization in those states. And we think that after the Florida primary on January 31, Newt will be the front-runner, if not the co-front-runner, with Governor Romney.

CROWLEY: Joe DeSantis, thank you so much for being with us tonight. We appreciate it.

DESANTIS: Thanks.

CROWLEY: It is time to reveal the man and woman in the number four slots of Gallup's annual poll who Americans most admire.

The Reverend Billy Graham has never finished first, but has been in the top 10 more than any other man, 55 times since 1955. Sarah Palin is the number-four woman on this year's list. For the last three years, she's been in the number-two slot.

Before we get to the next people on the most admired list, eye- opening numbers about how much time you and everyone else in the world is spending or wasting on Facebook.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Welcome back.

(NEWS BREAK)

CROWLEY: Bill Clinton is a regular on the Gallup poll's list of people Americans most admire. He's been number one eight times. This year, he places third. Number three on the list of most admired women is the current first lady, Michelle Obama.

Stay with us. We will reveal the top two in the next 10 minutes.

And next up, Mitt Romney tells Wolf Blitzer whether he will vote for Ron Paul if the Texas congressman is the Republican nominee.

And we will hear from presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who is leaving the Republican Party, but not giving up his quest for the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: In this half-hour of JOHN KING, USA: Mitt Romney tells us whether he'd vote for Ron Paul if the Texas congressman turns out to be the Republican nominee.

We will reveal the most admired men and women in the U.S. this year.

And former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter may have found a new career. Would you believe stand-up comic?

Newt Gingrich made coast-to-coast headlines by flatly saying he won't vote for Ron Paul if the Texas congressman becomes the Republican Party's nominee.

So, what does Mitt Romney think? Wolf Blitzer asked him about Paul's insurgent candidacy during today's CNN interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: If Ron Paul were to be the Republican nominee, it's a big if, but let's say he wins the nominee, would you vote for him?

ROMNEY: You know, I have already crossed that river if you will by saying on the stage a number of times as I believe speaker Gingrich ask, that all the people on the stage would be superior to the president we have. So, yes, I would vote for --

BLITZER: You would vote for someone who says that if Iran had a nuclear bomb, it wouldn't represent a threat to Israel?

ROMNEY: I don't agree with a lot of things that Ron Paul says. And I would imminently oppose many of his initiatives and I believe we'd be able to move him in a direction that's more productive. But I can tell you this president, in my view, is taking America in the wrong direction in Iran and Israel and with regards to our policies internationally and here at home.

BLITZER: So, you think Ron Paul would be a better president than Barack Obama?

ROMNEY: I have said that and I think Newt Gingrich has said the same thing on the stage when we've spoken about our Republican contenders. But look, this is not a race of course about people on the stage. I don't think should become the nominee. In my race, it's about getting me to become the nominee and taking the Republican banner and making sure that we get America back on track.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: As we said, six days until the caucuses here in Iowa, and Ron Paul's not only still in the running. Sometimes, he's running first, definitely second, perhaps part of the reason why he hasn't been shy about slamming his opponents, spending about three-quarters- of-a-million dollars on TV ads.

And there's a new one today.

Joe Johns is with me now and was with the congressman on the trail today.

Joe, he's banging on a consistent theme, and he has got the money to keep doing it.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: He certainly does.

And this ad is kind of interesting. It bangs away, if you will, at what he calls the Washington machine. And it talks about serial hypocrites and flip-floppers. And if that's not subtle enough, they also sort of throw in a picture of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, just so you know who he's talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNS: Right. So, let's take a look at the ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, RON PAUL CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: The Washington machine is strangling our economy. Politicians who supported bailouts and mandates, serial hypocrites and flip-floppers can't clean up the mess.

One man stands alone, a real plan to cut $1 trillion year one, balance the budget in three, consistent, incorruptible, guided by faith and principle.

Ron Paul, the one we have been looking for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Now, he's been coming out with a lot of these tough ads, quite frankly, but...

CROWLEY: Now, that's a rough ad. I saw that this morning. I was sort of amazed.

JOHNS: It really is. And when you think about it, though, I walked up on him today, two different events, town halls, put the mike out and said, "OK, so Congressman Paul, let's talk about this ad. Let's talk about the attacks on you by Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney." Wouldn't say a word.

Everybody says he doesn't like these media avails, but when you have a tough ad like that, you would think a guy would want to sort of back it up and put his money where his mouth is. CROWLEY: Play this game where you've got -- although these are his ads, a lot of Newt Gingrich comes to mind -- have third party that's putting out really rough ads, and they stay all happy. It's not a new game.

How is he feeling? I mean, he ought to -- looking at these polls, he's consistently been up there. And this is -- we couldn't even say it would be a surprise if Ron Paul won.

JOHNS: No. No, it wouldn't be a surprise, I don't think, if Ron Paul won. And it's interesting, the crowds that have come out. You know, this is the oldest candidate in the race and he's got a pretty solid size of younger voters there.

So it's interesting that people who are -- and the kinds of questions they ask. They very much buy into this -- this whole notion of downsizing government, reading the Constitution, understanding that you know you ought to, they say, get rid of the Federal Reserve or what have you. So he's got a lot of people buying into this Libertarian mindset, and it seems to be very popular here among some of the people who are most likely to go to the caucuses.

CROWLEY: A number of independent-thinking voters, that's for sure. Joe Johns, we'll talk to you over the course of the next week. Thanks.

You know you're a political junky if you've been following Gary Johnson's presidential campaign. The former New Mexico governor has been ignored by much of the media and most Republicans. But you may still get a chance to vote for him in November. Today Johnson announced he's leaving the Republican Party to seek the Libertarian Party nomination for president. He spoke to us a little bit ago from New Mexico.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Governor Johnson, today you took a big step from a lifelong Republican to the Libertarian Party. If you are looking at this and you are saying that here's a Republican. You've been in the Republican Party. You ran for governor twice, as a Republican, et cetera, couldn't get any traction in the presidential race, so you switched to the Libertarian Party.

This looks like a move that is more about opportunity than about principle. Can you give me some look into your thought process?

GARY JOHNSON (L), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, Candy, I would argue just the opposite, that it is about the message, that it's about the agenda, that it isn't just Ron Paul that's delivering this agenda, this message. That it's me, too.

I was excluded from 16 out of the 18 debates. I felt that that was really unfair. And the exciting notion for me here is, is that if I'm the Libertarian nominee, which is no done deal, but if I am, I'm on the ballot in all 50 states. And it's an opportunity to continue to be able to talk about the agenda, to talk about the message, as opposed to being sent home.

I happen to think the biggest growing segment of the Republican Party are those that are Libertarian leaning.

CROWLEY: But you almost said it yourself, which is you're looking at a growing segment of the Republican Party. Don't you, by the very notion of running as a Libertarian, deny Republicans votes and, therefore, conceivably handing the victory to President Obama?

JOHNSON: No, I actually see it the other way around. New Mexico's a state that's 2-1 Democrat. I think -- I think more votes are going to come from Democrats, who will be disenfranchised over gay marriage equality, over the fact that we have so much warfare going on in this country, that we've waged a war against ourselves when it comes to drugs, legalized marijuana.

No, I see this as drawing perhaps more votes from Democrats than Republicans. But worst case, best case, you know what? It's going to draw from both parties. The biggest growing segment of American politics is "decline to state" and independents. I think this is going to draw a big segment of that. And by draw big segment of it, it is about the message. It's about the agenda. And I don't see it being represented beyond the primary and Ron Paul's eventual -- eventually being knocked out of this.

CROWLEY: So you see that there is a voice that has to come out of the Republican Party that is obviously has moved to the Libertarian Party, if it's your voice. But let me ask you this.

The national recognition that you now have, the money that you have been able to raise have come with -- from people who think you are running -- thought you were running as a Republican. Now that you're running as a Libertarian, does money revert back to people who thought you wanted to be on the Republican ticket? You can see how this might be a difficulty for some.

JOHNSON: Well, actually, you know, I can see where you would think that. But it's been the opposite. It's been the opposite. It's been about people that really do care about this agenda, that really care about this message.

CROWLEY: But didn't they think you were running as a Republican?

JOHNSON: No, I think they were more concerned with the message. That's the feedback that I'm getting. And not that there haven't been a few that have been disappointed over the fact that, you know, they were supporting a Republican. But the overwhelming majority have been very, very supportive.

CROWLEY: Just as a final question here, though, the fact that you were not included in the debates had to do with the folks setting up those debates, the news media, others who participated, not the Republican Party, per se. The criteria was set up by those who sponsored the debate, not the Republican Party. JOHNSON: Well, the Republican Party could have stood up for me. For example, CNN, three months ago I'm at 2 percent of the national vote. After that poll by CNN, I was excluded from every poll.

CROWLEY: Former new Mexico governor, Gary Johnson, now a member of the Libertarian Party, looking at a presidential race. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Candy, thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: We'd like to add this note on how candidates were chosen to participate in CNN debates. CNN maintained a polling criteria for all of our 2011 presidential debates, which required candidates to meet an average of 2 percent of national polls.

One hundred twenty-two Republicans filed to run for president. Governor Johnson is one of the candidates who did not meet the 2 percent polling criteria needed for an invitation to CNN's debates.

We look forward to covering Governor Johnson's campaign as he seeks the Libertarian nomination for president.

OK. We've been telling you throughout the show who this year's most admired men and women are. And now it's time to reveal who got the top spots. Here with the winner is -- hint-hint -- chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Jessica, the envelope, please.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're starting with the runner-up, Candy. And on the men's side, it is President George W. Bush, No. 2 most admired man.

The runner-up among women, none other than Oprah Winfrey.

And as you hinted the most admired man -- can you guess why they had the White House correspondent do the story? President Barack Obama.

And the most admired woman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. You know she's held that spot 16 times. The only other woman who comes close to her record in this Gallup survey is Eleanor Roosevelt, Candy.

CROWLEY: So is there any value to this type of poll for the president?

YELLIN: Well, a little. Campaign aides, they frequently do cite polls showing that voters like and respect President Obama as a person. And the president's aides believe that his personal likeability somewhat makes up for his relatively low approval ratings and the rough state of the economy. But as you know, likeability hardly wins him the election, Candy.

CROWLEY: It does not, but votes do. So long way to go here. Thanks so much, Jessica. For their first big oil deal, Afghanistan did not choose the United States as its partner. Ali Velshi joins us explain what this means, straight ahead.

Plus, shocking images of clergy attacking each other coming up. We'll tell you what caused this biblical brawl.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Ali Velshi is anchoring "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" and is coming up at the top of the hour. We learned today that Afghanistan chose China, not the U.S., for its first big oil deal, which seems surprising to me, Ali, but not to you.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: No, because what we've seen around the world is China's being much, much more aggressive than the United States is in terms of securing these oil contracts.

First of all, this is one of many that will come up. China offered very good terms on this deal, paying heavy royalties to Afghanistan, which as you know, is cash strapped.

Afghanistan's not a huge oil provider, but they do share a tiny border with China. It's a 50-mile long border, and it's a very heavy trade corridor. So the fact is, it makes some sense for Afghanistan to be getting in the good -- the good graces of China.

But the bottom line here is that China is buying up any available oil around the world. They have a growth rate that is several times faster than the U.S. growth rate. And in fact, over the last decade U.S. oil consumption has been decreasing while we're finding more sources of oil.

So this is actually a common occurrence around the world. There will be other options. The U.S. will bid on them, and I'm sure they'll get their fair share of them, as well.

CROWLEY: So bottom line, China offered a better deal. Capitalism at its best.

What do you have coming up tonight, Ali?

VELSHI: Well, I don't know if you know this, but when a world leader dies, "OUTFRONT" likes to pay tribute, to put a package together to celebrate the achievements of a leader's life.

And tonight's honoree is Kim Jong-Il. I don't know if you know this, but he invented the hamburger. He took his first steps at the age of 3 weeks. He wrote 1,500 books in 3 years. And I'm sure all of this is true, Candy, because it comes from the official North Korean news service.

And on a more serious note, we'll be talking with Governor Bill Richardson, who spent a lot of time in the country, in North Korea. He's had an inside look into the North Korean leadership. We'll also talk with a Connecticut reporter who has more details on exactly what happened during that tragic Christmas morning fire. The family, were they given the OK to occupy the house during renovations? We'll have details on the heroic efforts of the grandfather to get his granddaughters out. More on how this fire started. All of that coming up tonight on "OUTFRONT" -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Such an awful story. Ali Velshi, thanks so much. We will see you later.

We are six days from the caucuses, and everything here seems to be changing. The latest CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll here in Iowa shows Mitt Romney leading Ron Paul.

But the big surprise is Rick Santorum, who surged into the No. 3 spot. Here to talk it over, I'm joined by "New York Times" national political correspondent Jeff Zeleny and political columnist for "TIME" magazine Joe Klein.

I'm actually not so surprised that Mitt Romney is back on top. He's been around that 25 percent mark for a year and a half. I thought -- and I'm not -- are we surprised that Rick Santorum, who's been saying all along I'm doing better than you all think, any of that surprise you?

JOE KLEIN, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "TIME": Well, I think he's been coming on. And as Republicans go through this field and will live -- you know, raise them up and then eliminate them -- eliminate them, he was one who hadn't been raised up yet. So it's his turn.

CROWLEY: His turn, right?

JEFF ZELENY, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think that's true. And he's also been really putting in the time here. I mean, he -- the caucus...

CROWLEY: He lives here.

ZELENY: ... is a niche product, and he's been visiting all these people around the state. And he hasn't had any major flubs. He's not been a star performer in the debates, but he's been very solid throughout. So people see him as being able to sort of address these problems and issues.

I saw him at a two-hour-long town hall meeting in Mason City yesterday, which seems like a long time. But boy, the voters loved it, because they know the circus is about to leave town. And they were happy to see him and happy to hear him answer all these questions.

KLEIN: He's getting some important Christian conservative endorsements, too. And the interesting thing to look at now over the next six days is whether the other also-rans like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and now we have to say Newt Gingrich, whether their supporters are going to drift to Santorum as the Christian conservative candidate who might win. CROWLEY: Right. Some of the Christian community have been urging all Christian voters to kind of get around one candidate because it's so split right now. But none of them are able to get any lasting traction.

Let me show you the number that I think matters most in this poll. And the question was, who has the best chance of beating President Obama in November? Forty-one percent said Mitt Romney. The next highest, 17 percent, Newt Gingrich. In the end, doesn't that tell us everything we need to know?

ZELENY: It's not even close. I mean, this is exactly what Mitt Romney has been trying to convey to voters in his closing argument. You can add up Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and still barely reach Mitt Romney. So that is what he's trying to make the argument.

But some voters here do not necessarily think that they're picking a president. They are picking someone who believes in their issues, someone who has articulated all their points of view. So every Iowan is not going to be moved by that, but that is the bottom line that is going help Mitt Romney here.

CROWLEY: We don't -- I met somebody at the airport that I've seen over the years, as we all do now. See all these familiar faces in the crowd who said...

KLEIN: "Groundhog Day."

CROWLEY: Exactly. We don't pick presidential candidates. We eliminate them. And that's really the role.

KLEIN: Well, that's the latest rationale that Iowans have for being first.

But you know, I think that this -- they kept on saying that this wasn't your parents' Republican Party. Well, it turns out that it may well be your parents' Republican Party, and it may not be the Tea Party's Republican Party the way this thing is beginning to sort out.

CROWLEY: And you know, something that really struck me from "New York" magazine was attributed to a senior Romney campaign strategist who said, the dynamic couldn't be better for us. I don't see any scenario where we're not the nominee. So I wanted to ask you, like, paint me a scenario under which you see Romney losing this.

KLEIN: Well, he has to lose Iowa first and then someone, I mean, the numbers in the "TIME"/CNN New Hampshire poll are very, very solid and good for Romney and very bad news for Jon Huntsman, who spent as much time in New Hampshire as Rick Santorum has spent here, and he can't really break out. So someone is going to have to beat Romney in Georgia and Florida and then you have a race.

ZELENY: If the field winnows...

KLEIN: South Carolina, excuse me. ZELENY: If the field winnows down pretty quickly and there's someone else that competes for this anti-Romney vote. And I think that's the only way it's possible.

But you know, it's -- it's really hard to get your mind around the fact that Mitt Romney is not going to go the distance. He's -- he's more organized every place than any of his rivals. And the Virginia story really proved this more than anything else.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry not getting on the ballot.

CROWLEY: On the ballot.

ZELENY: It just shows that Mitt Romney has been going at this really methodically. He's run before. It's helpful. But Ron Paul is going to stay in this race throughout all of the caucuses, all of the primaries.

So I think the only way that the Romney campaign sort of sees trouble is that, if it it's Mr. Paul, Mr. Romney and only one other person as opposed to a couple others.

But it's hard to get your mind around the fact that -- that Romney could stumble that poorly in all of these states.

KLEIN: Most of these guys can stay in. They don't have day jobs, really, and why not?

ZELENY: Debates.

KLEIN: There will be debates. You know, the only ones I can see dropping out if they really do badly here and in New Hampshire are Bachmann and Perry. Bachmann has to run again. And Perry is the governor.

CROWLEY: He does have a day job, actually. And I wanted to play you something. You know, Romney, we talk so often that he has had this ceiling of 25 percent, which is about where he is right now according to latest CNN/ORC/"TIME" poll.

And Wolf Blitzer talked to Romney today and asked Ann Romney what we didn't know about Mitt Romney. And here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN ROMNEY, WIFE OF MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think people don't appreciate, actually, his sense of humor. That he actually plays a lot of tricks all the time and that he -- he actually laughs most of the time. I mean, as soon as you will turn these cameras off, and we'll be there, he will be telling a joke and we'll be laughing. We'll be sitting back and telling jokes.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So what you're saying is he's a funny guy?

ROMNEY: He actually is a very funny guy. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KLEIN: OK.

CROWLEY: Who knew?

KLEIN: He's telling jokes, but are they good jokes?

CROWLEY: That's right.

KLEIN: Who knew?

CROWLEY: I actually don't think that's -- because people say, oh, they can't relate to him and he's so stiff. I have this theory that part of the problem with Mitt Romney is he's played this campaign of sitting there and watching other people go up and go down. He's been completely cautious and very careful and that people just didn't see the fire.

So they are sort of dating everybody else, but in the end they see him as more presidential than anybody in the field.

ZELENY: I think without question. And you do talk to voters here in other states. And they say, I just want Romney to have a little more energy. I don't care as much anti-Romney sort of sentiment.

And the Romney campaign has been fairly smart about that this time. They decided to go out and find voters who may be like-minded, and they may be supportive of them, as opposed to trying to convince the social conservatives that he's one of them. That didn't work four years ago. And it probably wouldn't work this time. So they're trying to find some other people. So we'll see if they're underground organization. If they've been doing it here for months and months, it's going to pay off next week.

CROWLEY: And I mean, do you agree? He just seemed like he wasn't, like, actively going for it.

KLEIN: I've been out here driving around the cornfields, listening to talk radio. Rush Limbaugh has sit-in hosts this week. But when you listen to the callers, they're all coming to terms with Romney now.

And the other important thing that Romney did last night in Davenport you're going to be hearing more and more about, is that he now has a story to tell. He has the scenario where he's going to propose the opportunity society and Barack Obama's going to propose the entitlement society. And that is a clearer message that he's had than in the past.

CROWLEY: Let's say that Rick Santorum or Ron Paul win this thing but that Romney's, you know, second, a strong third. Is that still a win for Romney?

ZELENY: I think that it's good enough for him to go forward. I mean, he has managed his expectations in Iowa really pretty well. For months, the headquarters and his campaign managers and things would say we're not really competing in Iowa. But of course they were. But I think that he -- it's not all tie-dye like it was before. So if Ron Paul wins, that is just fine with the Romney people in some respect.

CROWLEY: Because they don't think Ron Paul can win.

ZELENY: Exactly.

CROWLEY: And they don't think Rick Santorum could win. So if they wanted to pick the other two tickets out of Iowa, wouldn't they pick Santorum?

ZELENY: Which is why the Romney campaign is still going after Rick Perry. Even though he doesn't have a lot of signs of life, they're worried about him sort of coming back to life in South Carolina a little bit. And Newt Gingrich, they haven't ruled him out either. So the rise of Santorum is just fine with them. The rise of Ron Paul, just fine.

CROWLEY: ... that would be a victory. You go with him. Thanks so much, you guys.

Still ahead, why Uncle Sam is going after Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner.

Plus, Arlen Specter was once a Democrat and Republican senator. Next, we'll tell you why people are getting a good laugh at Specter's latest career choice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Welcome back. And that is Lisa Sylvester in Washington with the latest news you need to know right now.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Candy.

New York Yankees' co-owner Harold Steinbrenner is being sued by the Justice Department in a case filed in Florida federal court. The government alleges Steinbrenner received more than $670,000 in an erroneous 2009 tax refund. According to Bloomberg News, the case dates back to a 2001 dispute between the late George Steinbrenner and the IRS.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, well, he's no stranger to public speaking blunders, but today it wasn't him delivering the flub. It was his sidekick, Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Speaking to an audience in Urbanville, Iowa, Arpaio hoped to boost spirits using a sports reference. Instead, this happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: Boy, I'm getting to know Iowa, the great state of Iowa. Was it the Buckeyes or -- what do they call? Hawkeyes. Hawkeyes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER: OK. The problem is, the buckeye is the mascot of arch rival Ohio State. The University of Iowa mascot is, of course, the Hawkeye.

And look at this. Several dozen Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests were cleaning the interior of the church where Christians believe Jesus was born when, according to witnesses, two of them began fighting. The fight quickly escalated, and soon 50 to 60 priests, you see them there, they're exchanging blows with broomsticks. Police had to storm the Bethlehem holy site to stop this fight.

CROWLEY: That's not a very Christmasy story. Thank you.

SYLVESTER: No, it's one of those awful things.

CROWLEY: And now taking you back to a moment you may have missed. Right. Former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania taking up a new career. Stand-up comedy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARLEN SPECTER, FORMER SENATOR: I was a senator. Whenever Congress tells a joke it become a law. Whenever Congress passes a law, it turns out to be a joke. So I've been in comedy now for 30 -- for 30 years. The only difference is, it's not stand-up. We all have comfortable chairs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: You know, Lisa, I've known Arlen Specter for a long time and if I had to think about, like, what's his career after the U.S. Senate, you know, tax collector. I could have thought of a lot of things but stand-up comedian? I'm still appalled at that one.

SYLVESTER: Yes. Those jokes were on the money, though. He was pretty good. And you know, he's hitting a point that people can relate to. You know, they're not really excited and crazy about Congress right now and he knows it. He played it off very well, Candy.

CROWLEY: And by the way, he was in the Senate for decades, so he's got plenty of material.

Thanks, Lisa.

That is all from us tonight. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.