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Santorum Iowa Blitz; Gingrich Responds to Attacks

Aired December 31, 2011 - 16:00   ET



FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and thanks so much for joining us. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We're going to look at the 2012 presidential contenders in this political hour.

But first an update on some of the top stories of the day.

Bangkok, Thailand, rings in 2012. We're bringing you New Year's celebrations from around the world for New Year's eve. Bangkok really holds out all the stops. It's a New Year's Eve tradition in Thailand to set aside this night for total indulgence, they say.

And quite the opposite in Syria. Huge protest crowds are turning out across the country again today. And the death toll has grown. Earlier today an activist network reported nine deaths in clashes with security forces. It has now changed the number of dead to at least 13. The United Nations says more than 5,000 Syrians have died since mid March. Two opposition groups have reached a deal on a plan for democracy in case Syria's president steps down.

And back in this country, a magnitude 4.0 earthquake has rattled Ohio near the urban centers of Youngstown and Warren. This same area has been the center of a lot of controversy over fracking, a method of getting natural gas out of shale rock. Critics worry it could cause earthquakes and other damage.

And customers complained and Verizon listened. The country's largest mobile phone provider is scrapping its $2 fee for customers to make a one-time bill payment. The movement sparked outrage from thousands of Verizon customers for having to pay a fee to pay their bill.

And the New Year will mean new lives for entertainers, Russell Brand and Katy Perry, the entertainment power couple is calling it quits after a little more than a year of marriage. Brand tells CNN, "I'll always adore Katy and I know we'll remain friends."

And we're going to follow the Republican contenders live in Ohio today as they criss-cross the state. "The Contenders" 2012 starts right now.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon and welcome to "The Contenders 2012." I'm Candy Crowley. Today you're going to hear from the Republican candidates at their live events as they make their cases to Iowa voters why they should be the next president of the United States. I want to bring in our Jim Acosta now. Now, Jim, you just had an interview with Rick Santorum who really has had what could arguably be the best week of his campaign, at least so far as the polls are concerned.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean, Candy, you and I both know after covering this campaign for some time now that Rick Santorum was really almost sort of an afterthought. I mean just to be really honest about things during this race leading into the Iowa caucuses. But steady as he goes. You know, day in and day out, Rick Santorum was hitting a different corner of this state, you know going to those far-flung places that not a lot of us reporters were going and he was slowly but surely putting together a base of support in this state that is now paying off for him. And it is happening at a critical time.

You know he went from basically the back of the pack to a serious contender for third place, maybe even better, come caucus night. I had a chance to talk to him about all this. As you said a few moments ago and I was asking him, you know, do you have the boots on the ground to translate this latest success in the polls to an actual turnout on caucus night. He feels very comfortable about this because he's put in the time, he's put in the resources to try to make this happen. And you know it's sort of a throwback to the way things used to be done in Iowa.

Candy, this race, as you know, this time around in Iowa, it's been dominated by these super pac ads, by you know the more well-healed candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and even Ron Paul who have had the time, the money, the energy to put into the state to really turn out a successful outcome on Tuesday night. But Rick Santorum has been sort of done it. He's been sort of the Macgyver candidate, he's been duct-taped and WD-40'd and that sort of thing. Trying to put together a winning outcome. But it's interesting to see it happen at just this moment.

You know everybody's had their chance just about to be the un-Romney in this race. This is his time. And people seem to be responding to that message. I tried to get him to draw the contrasts a little bit between himself and Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. And he hasn't really done that. His fight seems to be at this point with Rick Perry. And when I asked him about "What about these earmarks that Rick Perry keeps bringing up that you supported when you were a senator in Washington?" And Rick Santorum said, "Wait a minute, Rick Perry has sent lobbyists up to Washington to lobby on behalf of the state of Texas."

So this is kind of a race for third place right now with Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, kind of the battle of the Ricks. And as you know, three tickets out of Iowa, if Rick Santorum has one of those tickets, it's going to be very interesting to watch to see how he does, you know, in the coming weeks.

CROWLEY: Well, it will because lots of times, I think, you know, when we look at these candidates and we think, boy, you get a ticket out of Iowa, but you have to have the money to back it up. And I think that's where the Santorum campaign, if they believe they're going to get one of those three tickets, must be looking now saying, "This is great, but moving ahead, certainly in a state like South Carolina, certainly in Florida, you've got to have some money to put down so that you can do the ad wars." Is there any sign and I haven't seen it and I'm sorry to ask you this because I don't know if you have the answer. Any sign that his fund-raising has picked up at all?

ACOSTA: He has said and I saw a local interview here in Iowa just last night where he said that he's raising more money online now than he has at any point during this campaign. And as a matter of fact, he has one of those money bombs being advertised on his campaign website right now, which is, you know, the money bomb is sort of the Ron Paul thing, one of those short-lived fund-raising bursts of activity where they try to get all of their supporters to go in and give five bucks, 10 bucks, 50 bucks to try to raise a lot of money. And Ron Paul's been very successful with that.

To see a Rick Santorum money bomb on his website right now, Candy, is kind of remarkable, it's kind of interesting to watch. It's a sign that perhaps, yes, the money is starting to come. Now (INAUDIBLE) though that Rick Santorum money bomb is for a total of $250,000. That's not a whole lot of money to a lot of the other candidates, to a Mitt Romney or a Ron Paul. But to a Rick Santorum, it does put more gas in the car, it does keep things going. And you mentioned South Carolina. I think that's exactly right, Candy. I mean does it make sense for Rick Santorum to go to New Hampshire after Iowa when Mitt Romney looks like he's going to clean up in that state and finish perhaps far ahead of the rest of the pack? Maybe it makes more sense for a Rick Santorum to go to South Carolina, talk to those social conservatives who he obviously has done well with here in Iowa and perhaps stitch together the same kind of boots on the ground, retail politicking, go to those far-flung places type of campaign.

If Newt Gingrich is fading. If that's not working out. If Michele Bachmann because perhaps some people say she's imploded in this last week, maybe she gets out of the race and the field is smaller, that potentially opens up an opportunity, I think, for Rick Santorum.

CROWLEY: And let me ask you something, because you have followed him more closely than I have over the past month or so. Is there - is the part that he now says in, at least the two speeches we've seen today, about electability, don't listen to the pundits, you know, this isn't about electability, this is about the strongest candidate, the strongest candidate will be electable. Is that a new part of his speech? It just strikes me that since he came up into third, what we've done a lot of talking about is whether he is electable in a general election.

ACOSTA: You know that has been part of his overall argument, I think, for a little while now. He has talked about the fact that, hey, he's won elections in Pennsylvania, which is a swing state, a purple state, maybe even a blue state. And he said he did that because he's been able to make that sort of appeal to those Reagan Democrats.

You know one of the things he talks about, and we tend to get into the horse race aspect of all of these, we don't talk about the bread-and- butter issues of this campaign, one of the things that Rick Santorum has talked about a lot, and I've heard a lot of people in Iowa say they're responding well to this, his economic plan. It's what he calls a made in the USA economic plan. It's really focused on getting the manufacturing base up and running again.

And of course, he would do all of those things, he would get that manufacturing base going if he were elected president by - through conservative principles. He wants to cut regulations. He wants to reduce taxes on the manufacturing sector and those sorts of things. And he thinks that will potentially get the manufacturing sector going in this country. But it is one of those kinds of appeals that I think could work across party lines and perhaps go to those conservative Reagan Democrats in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and in the midwest. And I think that is part of his overall strategy, to make that kind of appeal.

But you know what I also have picked up on in just talking to him a few moments ago is there's just a little bit - I was trying to drag it out of him. And I know you sensed it and I'm sure you were saying, "Nice try, Jim." I was trying to pull it out of him just a little bit. He was starting to draw a contrast I think a little bit with Mitt Romney and saying, "You know, I'm the true, full-spectrum conservative, the Reagan conservative, maybe some of other guys aren't that way." You know, it's sort of a kid-glove treatment on Mitt Romney a little bit from Rick Santorum. But what he's trying to say is, "He's not one of you guys, I am."

CROWLEY: All right Jim Acosta, Santorum, by the way, when he talked to Jim was on the second of five cities that he's going to. He can talk a lot about manufacturing I know in Pella where they have a bit of a manufacturing base. Jim, thank you so much. We will talk to you later on in the day. We appreciate it.

Up ahead on "The Contenders 2012," our Wolf Blitzer sits down with Mitt Romney.

But first - the other big story today. It is already 2012 in some parts of the world. You're looking at pictures from Hong Kong where they're 13 hours ahead of us in the U.S..


CROWLEY: Welcome back. You are watching "The Contenders 2012." It's where we give you all an opportunity basically to see what Iowans have seen for the past year or so, these small town hall meetings, drop by little places of business where the candidates basically now giving their closing spiel. The caucuses are Tuesday and you know urging folks to come to the caucuses for them. We have seen thus far - it has included seeing Newt Gingrich on the stump. He was in Atlantic, Iowa, where we find our Joe Johns.

You know, Joe, as I was listening to Gingrich give his talk to these folks, I was struck by how it opened, with his complaints about the negative advertising and trying to turn it into a "get out the vote" mechanism saying "Hey, you know, 45 percent of negative ads have been against me this month. Let's send the message that it doesn't work and you all come and caucus for me."


CROWLEY: It has been a big part I think of that 19-point drop Gingrich has seen in the last three weeks.

JOHNS: Yes, you're right. That's quite a spin on it, isn't it? We've had all these negative ads come to the caucuses on Tuesday and turn it around on them, show them, you don't like negative ads by voting, basically, for Newt Gingrich in the caucuses. So that was definitely one of the stories of this event here in Atlantic, Iowa. He began the town hall with that message. He talked about it at the end of his remarks here. He also talked about it in a media avail just a few minutes ago right around the corner here.

I asked him about it. He had a pretty long dialogue. The long and short and the message from here is, number one, he says he's going to make some adjustments. He's going to - going forward on ads - draw an even sharper contrast to some of these other candidates. He calls the ads that have been coming out particularly the ones from the Super Pac that supports Mitt Romney as dishonest. Here's an example of one of his remarks here when he was talking about the ads at this event in Atlantic just a little while ago.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The level of dishonesty in these ads - if somebody wants to run an ad and say, you know Gingrich reformed welfare and that was the wrong thing to do, they couldn't do that in a Republican primary, but they could take parts of my record and they could attack me in an honest way. And that's fine. I mean that's what this is about. But the level of just sheer dishonesty in these ads, to me - it's taken me two weeks to get reoriented and to realize - and I'm now kind of sad that we didn't have one or two more debates. Because I would have been much more direct with a couple of these candidates about the degree to which they're just plain dishonest.


JOHNS: So I do hope in a little while we'll be able to turn around some of the surround from this media availability that was around the corner just a little while ago because I asked him two or three questions about this issue of the ads and how he'd respond. And there have been a lot of reports, a lot of discussion from behind the scenes in the campaign trail that people are telling Newt Gingrich he needs to go ahead and do some negative ads of his own in kind to respond to the Mitt Romney Super Pac and others.

And so what he told me was, there's no immediate plans to respond, if you will, in kind. But he did say, yes, they're going to sort of adjust their message, again, to create a little bit more contrast with some of these other candidates. He also said that had he known these ads were coming out, he would have drawn much sharper contrast in the previous debates with some of the other candidates. But all of that is water over the dam, if you will. The other news out of Atlantic here today, Candy, is that the campaign says they're going to join a lawsuit in the state of Virginia over getting Newt Gingrich and several other candidates on the ballot. Rick Perry started all of this off, you know, when Newt Gingrich did not get on the ballot in Virginia. Now the Gingrich campaign says they're joining with some others to try to open up the process because he calls it sort of an encumbrance for people to run for president in the state of Virginia. Candy?

CROWLEY: And by the time we get around to Virginia, it may be a moot point for some of those candidates. But maybe not. Maybe we'll have four or five of them in by the time we get to that primary. You know, Joe, in my experience, drawing a sharp contrast has always meant going negative. Did he seem to mean anything else by that?

JOHNS: Well, I mean that was my question, are you going to go negative? His answer was, "We're going to draw a sharper contrast, perhaps." But he also said, not necessarily before the Iowa caucuses but down the road. So it doesn't sound like he's planning on doing this immediately. And, you know, immediately, between now and Tuesday s a big problem for Newt Gingrich because he's seen such a drop in the polls since those negative ads started airing.

And the other problem, of course, and the thing a lot of us are not getting at, really, is that Newt Gingrich did not have money to run with the big boys as it were on the issue of negative advertising, the Mitt Romney Super Pac just had gobs and gobs of money that they just poured into ads. Ron Paul poured a lot of money into ads. In fact, you know, there's this report out that something like 45 percent of the negative ads that have been run in the last little while all were focused on Newt Gingrich. He just didn't have the kind of money to respond.

So how suddenly you bring enough money in now to really start fighting back, it's pretty hard to say, especially given the fact that he's a drop in the polls because when you have a drop in the policy, you also a lot of times have a drop in fund-raising, too, Candy.

CROWLEY: Right, right. It's like a political chicken and egg, which comes first, the drop in the polls or the lack of funds? So there you go. Thank you so much, Joe Johns. We appreciate it. We'll talk to you later in the day.

We are going to continue with "The Contenders 2012" right after this break.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to CNN's "The Contenders 2012." We are giving you a look at all of these Republican candidates as they march through their final days, yes, even on New Year's Eve day they are out there campaigning. Rick Santorum seems to have the most crowded schedule, five events. And one of the schedules that has a few more blanks than others, Rick Perry.

I want to bring in our Peter Hamby. Peter, I know you have been with Governor Perry throughout this morning. I'm told he's wrapped it up for the day. Is that right?

PETER HAMBY: Yes, yes, I believe so. He's also - you mentioned Rick Santorum, he's been carrying on a pretty robust schedule throughout his whole Iowa campaign. Rick Perry this last month has been doing a marathon bus tour of the state. He has hit 42 cities. He's banging out four or five events a day. And he's getting very good crowds, Candy. And you know the task for his campaign out here in Iowa is to sign those people up who come to these events. They seem to like him, and get them out to the caucuses next Tuesday.

CROWLEY: And that's kind of always the problem here. This is the final push for him. And he seems to be battling it out for fourth at this point with Newt Gingrich. Is that how they read it or do they have a larger target in mind?

HAMBY: You know what, Candy, I would actually read it that Santorum, Newt and Perry are battling it out for third place. Santorum is obviously surging but he doesn't have the operational abilities that Perry doe does. And you know the campaigns I've talked to have internals showing it to be extremely fluid in that third place spot. And the Perry campaign, as you said, he's battling. They are flying in, I learned today, out of state, 500 volunteers from out of state. And then they have 1,500 precinct captains here in Iowa, which is a very strong number for a campaign, basically. They're going to be at all these caucus locations speaking up for their candidates. Candy, and the Perry campaign is very well-organized.

So even though he has kind of mediocre poll numbers, they're hoping that operation can mean the difference between a ticket back to Austin and a ticket to South Carolina. Take a listen to what he said earlier today in Ft. Dodge, this is sort of your typical speech you hear from Perry as he's traveling around Iowa, Candy.


PERRY: I want to share something with you that I've always believed in campaigns for president, are not just about the candidates. It's really about the people of this country. It's about the values that we have that we share that we've been taught. And the fact of the matter is, the vote's not really about me. This is about our children, it's about the future of this country. It's about a statement of your values. And who you are going to choose is a reflection of your values.

And I always would be honored to have your vote as a statement of that, of your values and you see reflected in me the values that are important for you, your family, for this country and together. We're going to build a movement to take this country back, to get Washington out of our hair as much as we can because Washington is taxing too much, they're regulating too much, they're spending too much. And this campaign truly is about restoring hope for the next generation by changing that spending culture in Washington, D.C. and ending this stifling debt of $15 trillion-plus dollars that's on the backs of the next generation. It's making Washington realize that it's we the people that are in charge in this country.

America is not a class -


CROWLEY: All right. So has that been basically the message that he's gone with most of the time throughout the last couple of weeks, Peter?

HAMBY: Yes, again, on this bus tour, his closing argument is kind of the way it was in Texas when he ran for governor in 2010, that he's the outsider, that Washington has overreached. And you know his standard line to audiences is, I'm going to make Washington as inconsequential in your lives as possible, sort of framing himself against Mitt Romney who he casts as a creature of Wall Street and Newt Gingrich who he says is a longtime Washington insider. You see that on television relentlessly. The Perry campaign is dropping millions of dollars on television and in the mail. They're even running ads on Pandora radio. They have a really creative media team.

So yes, that's basically, Candy, the message here that he's not from D.C.. You know he's one of you voters out here in Iowa. He's got rural roots and he's going to go to Washington and fix things, Candy.

CROWLEY: Peter Hamby in Boone, Iowa, for us. Thanks so much.

"The Contenders 2012" with CNN will be right back.


CROWLEY: Hi. Welcome back to "THE CONTENDERS 2012." This is sort of your chance to see what's been going on out here in Iowa.

Some of them are on tape. But we do large chunks hoping to give you the unedited version of what folks see when they show up at these events, at these town hall meetings or in these small cafes and get to talk to people who want to be president of the United States and want to be, in this case, the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

Throughout this week, CNN has been blanketed across this state. One of those who has been with us and was with us earlier in the week, our Wolf Blitzer who sat down with both Mitt and Ann Romney, where we learned, among other things, that it was Ann Romney who wanted Mitt Romney to run this second time around.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ann was convinced that I had to run again. She said look, no one else can beat President Obama. No one has the background to actually get the economy going, understand the economy in a very fundamental way. And she said you've got to run again. And she pushed that for a long time. And I was open to her thoughts but very much undecided.

And then after several months, came to the same conclusion. I had to look at the other people who were running, think about their prospects of beating the president, looked at their backgrounds and felt that there really wasn't someone that had the private sector experience that I had to get the economy going again.

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: And that's how I the lens I looked when I was making my decision. It's like, yes, there's this whole other thing over here that's running. And then there's this whole other thing over here that's actually being president. And I knew that Mitt actually being president would be a very good thing.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: Is it nastier this time around?

MITT ROMNEY: I don't know that I can compare that. Campaigns are by definition entities that point out distinctions between candidates. I mean, you go back to the days of Jefferson Adams, my goodness. They were going back and forth with various attacks. And people took a look at it, some things they discounted other things they believed. But it was informative and ultimately people make their decision. I'm not going to complain about a political process that's been this way for a couple of hundred years.

BLITZER: So, when Newt Gingrich says it's baloney that you can't control these Super PAC ads that are attacking him o a daily basis, what do you say?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, we understand of course that super Pac has to be independent of campaigns. And campaigns can't tell them what advertisements to run. I could get up and say, I decry all the negative ads but I don't.

I mean, this is the part of the process. We could all wish we had a utopian-type political process. But campaign process that exists is the way it's been for a long time. People -- I hope that the ads that go up despite showing contrast and distinction or attack or whatever you might want to say. I hope they always tell the truth.

I would vehemently say to all these PACs that are running independent ads, as well as campaigns stick to the truth. If they stick to the truth, then that's the nature of the process we're going to have. But, you know I recognize if you're going to get in a campaign like this, you have to have broad shoulders. And if you can't take on the negative that's a 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 till Barack Obama's hell's kitchen.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about a sensitive issue but an important issue, transparency. You say you're not going to release your income tax returns. You're not going to release the name of your bundlers, the people raising money for you. Why are you not going to do that? You want to be a president. You got to - American people expect the revenue.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I've said that I don't have any plans to release my income tax returns at this point. No other candidates have released theirs at this point. I'll keep open. What will happen down the road, never say never. But with regards to other disclosures, we'll follow the law. And the people who have contributed and participated in our campaign expect us to follow the law.

BLITZER: The question comes up, what do you have to hide? Why wouldn't the American public need to be able to know whose raising money for you --?

MITT ROMNEY: There's nothing particularly to hide. It's just when people say, what disclosures have you made, you say, you follow the law and you provide that information. I don't put out what toothpaste I use either.


CROWLEY: Like right now. So, blank that.

So, that was Mitt Romney last week. He has since gone -- returned to New Hampshire for about a day. And now he's in Le Mars, Iowa, where we're going to let you take a listen to him live.

MITT ROMNEY: Economic freedom, the right to pursue opportunity. We are an opportunity nation. In America, a merit society, an exceptional nation, people's barber to their education and their hard work, and their willingness to take risks, their dreams can build enterprises like this very restaurant.

And by virtue of their dreams and their hard work and education and skill and a little good luck, their success can reward them and reward the rest of us as we work for them or as we see our entire society grow and thrive. We're a nation which is built upon opportunity. This idea that the best way to create wealth for all of our citizens was to give each of them the freedom to pursue their own dreams, is what's so unique about the founding of this country. It is what accounts for our extraordinary strength as a nation.

Our DNA is like the people in Europe, but we excel past them, way beyond them, in terms of the abundance in this land because of the principles upon which this nation has been founded. I don't think President Obama understands America that way. I don't think he understands what makes our economy so powerful. I think he wants to change us into a European welfare state where instead of having a nation which thrives because of freedom and opportunity, we instead have a government that takes from some people to give to others in the name of creating greater equality.

And all they'll create is greater poverty because only freedom has ever been an antidote to poverty in the world. So, I see this election as not just an election to replace a president. I see this as an election to save the soul of America.


MITT ROMNEY: This is an election to decide whether we're going to go further and further down the path of becoming more and more similar to a European welfare state or whether instead we're going to remain an exceptional nation with freedom and opportunity at our heart, whether we remain a merit society or an entitlement society. That's the choice I think the Americans are going to face. And I know what will happen.

If we continue along with President Obama and his policies, you'll see government get larger and larger and larger because it has to take more and more and give to more people, government will get larger. Our debts will get more and more immense and people will find that the hope that they've always associated with America is replaced with a sense of certainty that their future is not clear and bright. I know what the policies will be of an administration that would pursue that path. We would replace envy with ambition and would poison the very spirit of American enterprise because we would threaten the sense of one nation under god.

I love this country. I don't want to become more like Europe. Europe isn't working in Europe. I want America to remain quintessentially American with people coming here from all over the world seeking our freedoms, bringing greatness to America, sharing in the wealth which was provided to us by the principles of our founding.

Now, I know that these have been three for different years. Not been an easy time for a lot of Americans. You've got 25 million people today out of work or stopped looking for work or are way underemployed, given their skills. You have kids coming out of college that can't find jobs. So it's a tough time.

I believe this is a detour, however, not a destiny. I remember a time, I believe you remember a time when you weren't afraid to look at the headlines, when you weren't afraid to look at your retirement account, when you weren't afraid to look at the gas pump. I remember a time when you were thinking about what movie you might take your kids to see at the end of the week instead of worried about whether you could make food for the table until the end of the week. A time when you were thinking about where you might retire as opposed to thinking that you might never retire.

These have been three very difficult years. And I want to reclaim America because that America of our past that we remember so well is not gone. It's still in the heart of the American people. And it's in the heart of the principles that we have lived by and that have made us great as a nation. I will restore and bring back those principles. I don't want what the president said, fundamentally transform America. I don't want to turn us into something we're not. I want to bring back the principles that made us the hope of the earth. We are still a shining city on a hill. I will restore America's principles and by doing so get our economy going again, get people back to work, help middle income families struggling so desperately. I want to make sure this is the best place in the world to be middle class. And I want to have every parent in this country have a conviction that the future for their kids is brighter than even the years they've enjoyed themselves.

That's always been a part of the American experience, to have confidence in the future. That's been shaken today. This is a great land. The principles that made us the hope of the earth continue to drive our prospects for tomorrow. I'm going to do everything in my power if I'm elected president of the United States to restore those principles. And it begins with a number of things. One, I will finally get America on track to have a balanced budget and to stop spending your kids' future.


MITT ROMNEY: I will get the government out of your health care by repealing Obamacare.


MITT ROMNEY: I will make America the best place in the world imaginable for entrepreneurs and innovators and dreamers, people who want to start small businesses, people who want to expand big businesses. How will I do that? Well, one thing I'll do is make sure all the regulations that have been enacted during the Obama years are put on hold and then we'll get rid of the ones that kill jobs.


MITT ROMNEY: And energy, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me that we send hundreds of billions of dollars every year outside this country to go by energy from other people when we have ample energy here. And by the way, next door in Canada, we'll open that keystone pipeline and we'll develop our own oil and gas in this country.


MITT ROMNEY: I could keep you all day here with all the things I want to do. But I can tell you this. We're going to get America working again. We're going to reclaim the dream that has always made us the shining city on a hill. I love this country. I love its beauty. I love its people. I love the principles upon which it was founded and I'm going to make sure that we reclaim that America for ourselves and for our kids. Thank you so much. Great to be with you today. Thank you.


CROWLEY: Mitt Romney in Le Mars, Iowa, returning to actually a campaign theme of his announcement speech when he compared President Obama's policies to that of a socialist Europe. So coming full circle here, Mitt Romney looking pretty good in the polls here in Iowa, something that was unexpected by the campaign. So we'll see him a lot over the next couple of days here as we move forward those January 3rd caucuses Tuesday.

We'll come back to "The Contenders 2012." but first, it is already 2012 across many parts of the world. In Vatican City, the Pope held mass and gave thanks for the past year's blessings.

New Year's Eve celebrations begin in the U.S. just hours from now. Our Anderson Cooper will be among the crowds in New York's Times Square along with comedienne Kathy Griffin. Together, they will host CNN's special New Year's Ever coverage beginning tonight at 11:00 Eastern.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to this special hour of "CNN newsroom."

We're taking the time this afternoon to let you hear from the 2012 presidential contenders, unfiltered, uninterrupted and in their own words. It's like you're on the campaign trail here in Iowa.

Michele Bachmann is campaigning in Urbandale, Iowa. In the latest CNN poll, she is second to last, drawing just nine percent of the support here in Iowa. Only Jon Huntsman polls lower. CNN's Shannon Travis is following Bachmann. Shannon?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Candy. Yes, I'm here at the Iowa headquarters for Michele Bachmann here in Urbandale. The room may look a little bit empty right now. But a lot of the volunteers and staffers are filling back in. They just went out and took a group picture in front of the Michele Bachmann bus.

But basically, for most of the afternoon, the room has been a bus with activity. A lot of the supporters and volunteers are calling various people across Iowa saying, hey, are you coming out on caucus night? Will you caucus for Michele Bachmann or would you even be willing to speak on her behalf, be a caucus captain?

Michele Bachmann showed up here a short while ago, Candy, and she actually worked the phone herself. Take a look at this --


MICHELE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hi this is Michele Bachmann calling. Is this Bob Johnson? Hey, Bob. I'm doing great. What are you doing today? Hanging out at home? That's exactly what you should do on New Year's Eve. It sounds good.

Well, I'm here in the Des Moines office just making calls to ask people to get out on Tuesday night. And I'm calling to ask for your vote on Tuesday night. Awesome! Can you bring more people with you? Good.

Well, listen, I am, too. Tell me where you live, Bob. You are? OK, wonderful. Well, you've got a lot of time between now and Tuesday night. Thanks for your support. Be sure you tell everybody you know, tell your friends and your neighbors and everybody at church this election is wide open. And so, we can win this thing on Tuesday night.

You know my brother? Man. He is hilarious, isn't he? He is an awesome guy. And actually he is going to be here on Tuesday night. So, why don't you -- yes, why don't you come out to our watch party and the campaign headquarters and you'll see him. Yes, absolutely.


TRAVIS: Candy, Michele Bachmann not leaving any caucus goers to chance, phoning them on her own in these 72 hours before caucus night. But one of the critical questions is what happens after Tuesday? What's the strategy for New Hampshire and South Carolina? I actually spoke with the congresswoman, a little one-on-one interview with a little while ago. And I put that question to her. She said you know what, we are going to go to New Hampshire and campaign there. But we're also going to go on to South Carolina. And she - as she put it that they're running a 50-state campaign. That all this talk about her potentially dropping out if she doesn't have a good showing here in Iowa is false, according to her, and that they're ready to go the distance in this campaign -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Well, you know, Shannon, I think -- I always say, people say, this person out or are they going to get out? I say, they're never out until they are. You know, they always say, I'm going to stay. I'm going to stay in until that moment of the decision. Then they will tell you.

But I do think it's interesting that when we leave Iowa, it will be interesting to watch how many of these candidates, especially those appealing to social conservatives, will, by and large, skip New Hampshire and spend the bulk of their time in South Carolina. I'm getting from you the sense she may be one of them.

TRAVIS: Yes, it certainly seems that way. I mean, I - actually congressman, you know, somebody on your rivals, Ron Paul campaign heavily in New Hampshire. And the polls reflect their standing there. Her, is not as much.

She did again say that she's going to be going to New Hampshire. But in terms of making up ground, she has a lot of ground to make up in comparison to them, maybe a little less so in South Carolina because she has campaigned there a lot. It's been pretty much between South Carolina and Iowa. So she's talking about going ahead, again, no talk about dropping out if she doesn't do well here in Iowa.

But it is interesting that her strategy from New Hampshire maybe isn't as robust as some of the other rivals have been in the past few weeks and months actually -- Candy.

CROWLEY: You know there is a debate coming up in New Hampshire, too. So I suspect they will all show up for that because debates always have resonance beyond the state that they're in. Thanks so much, Shannon Travis. Appreciate it.

Newt Gingrich is on the defense. The former Republican front-runner talks candidly with Wolf Blitzer about the onslaught of attacks he's facing in Iowa when we return.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to this special hour of "CNN newsroom."

We are taking the time this afternoon to let you hear from the 2012 presidential contenders unfiltered, uninterrupted, in their own words. Newt Gingrich has had a bull's-eye on his back in Iowa ever since he leapt up in the polls. Millions of dollars have been spent in negative attack ads against him.

Wolf Blitzer talked with Gingrich about the negativity and how it's affecting his campaign.


BLITZER: The attack ads, though, they are having an impact.


BLITZER: I was watching TV. I don't know how much TV you've watched in Iowa. But if you watch commercials, they are hitting you hard.

GINGRICH: Yes. Well look, I think they will have spent 5, 6, $7 million, most of it false. And the amazing thing to me is we've held up as well as we have. And I think now we're going to come back, these entire jobs and economic growth tour is designed to counter the negativity. We always start out to be in the top three or four. I think we're going to be in the top three or four. We could end up as number one. It's a very confusing field right now.

BLITZER: It looks like you're lowering expectations a little bit, which is understandable.

GINGRICH: A little bit, yes.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this Romney - well, it's not Romney directly. It's a Super PAC.

GINGRICH: It's a Romney.

BLITZER: Backed by his supporters. He, as you know, points out he can't have any involvement. I'll play a little clip. Watch it and we'll discuss for viewers who may not have seen it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Barack Obama's plan is working. Destroy Mitt Romney, run against Newt Gingrich. Newt has a ton of baggage. He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations and took $1.6 million from Freddie Mac before it helped cause the economic meltdown. Newt supports amnesty for illegal immigrant and teams with Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore on global warming.

BLITZER: Alright, you got the point. That's a tough ad. It's not directly from Mitt Romney. It's from a Super PAC.

GINGRICH: This is one of the things that are false about American politics. That PAC is run by his staff, paid for by his friends.

BLITZER: But there can't be any coordination. That would be illegal.

GINGRICH: All he has to say publicly is, only run positive ads. That would be called leadership.

BLITZER: But that's not necessary smart politics, is it?

GINGRICH: Well, it depends on not you think being negative and dishonest as good for the president.

BLITZER: What's dishonest about this ad? I'll give you a chance to respond. He was fine $300,000 for ethics violation.

GINGRICH: I wasn't fined. I paid the cost of the investigation. The fact is a U.S. court later said I was totally right and the SEC said I was totally right. And the IRS said I was totally right. The $300,000 I paid was for having a lawyer draft a letter that was technically wrong. Out of 84 charges, 83 were totally thrown out. One ended up being a letter written by a lawyer. So it's not a fine. I paid for the cost of the investigation. Let's go to the next one.

BLITZER: The next one, he took $1.6 million from Freddie Mac before it helped cause the economic meltdown.

GINGRICH: First of all, this is like ascribing to Romney all the income of Bain Capital. He knows better. His staff knows better. The company was paid over a six-year period. The company has three offices in three different series. My share of that was probably $33,000 a year.

BLITZER: That's all?


BLITZER: Out of the 1.6million?


BLITZER: Really?

GINGRICH: So, start down the rehab. And he knows better because he's a businessman. If we were to ascribe to him the gross revenue of Bain as his income, he would immediately scream foul.

Second, the only time I ever publicly talked about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the house is in "The New York Times" in July of 2008. And I told them to vote "no" on bailing them out. So, the only time you could try and me publicly talking about, I am against giving them taxpayers' money. So, that piece of it is just fundamentally misleading.

BLITZER: Alright, let's go to the next one. Newt Gingrich supports amnesty for illegal immigrants.

GINGRICH: I support residency as an option, without citizenship for people who have been here 25 years who have a family and have an American family willing to sponsor them. Now, to jump from there to amnesty is a gross distortion. And it would be like my running an ad saying, Mitt Romney wants to go out and track down every single illegal alien and forcibly kick them out of the country, even if he breaks up families. He would immediately scream foul.

BLITZER: And the other point and we know about this, you helped Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore on global warming. We remember the bench. GINGRICH: Two things. One, I've said publicly, dumbest single thing I've done in the last four years was doing an ad with Nancy Pelosi. But they then -- a number of these ads jump on to say I was for cap and trade. That's not true. You go to, we have the actual video of me testifying in the house against cap and trade. I was the first witness after al gore. He was for it. I was against it.


CROWLEY: Our Wolf Blitzer with, of course, Newt Gingrich.

Now, just a few minutes ago, Shannon Travis talked with a representative Michele Bachmann and you'll hear some of that interview in our next hour. Right now, though, a quick break.