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Coverage of the GOP Candidates in Iowa; Newt Gingrich Drops to 4th in Polls; Interview with Michele Bachmann; Rick Perry Campaigning Hard in Iowa; Candidates Already Look Forward to New Hampshire; Ron Paul Spends New Years in Texas

Aired December 31, 2011 - 17:00   ET



CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon from Des Moines. We are back with "The Contenders 2012." I'm Candy Crowley.

We're following the republican presidential candidates as they zero in on Iowa. Today, the candidates make their cases to the voters here. Why should they be the next president of the United States?

I'm joined now by our Joe Johns who is with Newt Gingrich and with Jim Acosta who is with Rick Santorum. Almost all the candidates are here in Iowa making the most of this remaining days before the Iowa caucuses. This hour, Santorum is scheduled to be in Oskaloosa, just one of his five stops he's to make today. We want to start with the latest Iowa CNN time ORC poll. Mitt Romney in the lead. Rick Santorum up. Newt Gingrich down. So, I want to bring in both Jim and Joe at this point. I don't know that any of us could have foreseen where this race would be at this point. But it has been a pretty exciting one and seems to me going down to the end, Joe, the big question here is whether Newt Gingrich has had enough time to kind of recover what's been a pretty steep fall.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he said here at this event in Atlantic, Iowa, just a little while ago that it kind of threw him off- balance for a while and he's just now regaining his balance. So, the question is, how does he do that? And we really hit him up on questions about whether he's going to go negative in his television ads, to sort of go against those individuals who have brought, as you can see, a truck coming past us right now. I don't know if you can hear me. This is a soft drink bottling and distribution plant. Anyway, the bottom line is, he did say he was off-balance. He is trying to recover. And he is suggesting that he's going to do a lot more contrasting himself in ads after we get out of the Iowa caucuses. Though Candy, the big question is, what's he going to do about the Iowa caucuses because he's dropped so much in the polls since the negative ads first started? Back to you.

CROWLEY: Also want to bring sort of the other side of this poll, if you will, with Jim Acosta because some of what Newt Gingrich lost may have been picked up by Rick Santorum.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Candy. You know, ever since this process got started here in Iowa, caucus goers have been looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney and they've been shopping, you know, through a very I guess wide range of candidates. They sort of looked at Herman Cain for a while. Then they turned to Newt Gingrich. And now it seems that they are looking at Rick Santorum and giving him a hard look. And the timing could not be better for the former Pennsylvania senator. He came to this National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum here in Knoxville, Iowa, just a little while ago. And it's kind of an odd fight that he would come to the sprint car museum because this has been a marathon for Rick Santorum. He has covered every county of this state.

He told us just a little while ago, he's given 360 town halls in this state. And so what he's asking Iowans in the final days of this campaign is to reward him for all of that hard work. I had a few minutes to talk to him about this campaign and how this is shaping up for him. And he really feels like he's peaking at just the right time and has a real shot at pulling off a serious upset, if not that, perhaps a very good showing that will make him a serious contender going forward, Candy. Let's hear what he had to say.


ACOSTA: You've been sort of thanking the people of Iowa, you've always become sort of a part-time resident in this state leading up to these caucuses. What is your message in these final days going in? Do you think that that message can put you over the top?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I feel very good that the, you know, the people of Iowa have seen us out there. They've kicked the tires. We've done 360 town hall meetings. And they know the vision I've laid out, that I'm the strong, full-spectrum, consistent conservative and someone who will make the kind of changes that America needs. And that they don't need to settle for something less. They don't need to settle for something less because some folks have convinced them that that's what we need to do to win. It's a period victory if we elect someone who isn't ready to do what America needs to have done.

ACOSTA: And let me ask you about that, because if I can read between the lines there, it sounds like you're talking about Mitt Romney. You have emerged as sort of the latest un-Romney here in the final stretch of this campaign going into the caucuses. Do you feel that he's a full-spectrum conservative, the way that you describe yourself?

SANTORUM: Look, I feel we're much stronger and we have a better record of showing that we stand up in good times and in bad, when it's popular and not popular, for the principles that made our country great, that believing in the bottom up, believing in free people and free markets and not in government control, whether it's health care, whether it's financial services or in controlling energy and global warming, that we believe in markets and we believe in people. And that's the plan I put forward. And it's a clear contrast to Barack Obama. And I think that's what we need to know in this election.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you about the way you've wage this campaign. Because you've sort of done it the old-fashioned way. You've visited all the counties, you've done it basically with very little TV time, very little ad time. Whereas you look at the other candidates in this race, especially the two at the top, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, they've profited primarily because of advertising, PAC advertising. But you haven't done that. What message do you think Iowa caucus goers should take from that because we've heard Newt Gingrich say, well, don't reward some of these candidates who are doing that sort of thing. What's your message?

SANTORUM: I think you reward the candidate that you've had the opportunity to test and see not just what their ads say but what's really in their heart, what's in their head. We know how well they can handle the tough questions because they're going to get them. We've seen that. We've seen candidates that have not gone through the trial, have not been tested. And when they go out there, they don't do particularly well in handling. You know, after 360 town hall meetings, I can answer most questions now. And I have a pretty good idea why I believe what I believe not just you know, trying to form the answer that may sound the best.


ACOSTA: So, there you heard Rick Santorum basically giving the message to Iowans, he's kicking it old school. Kicking old school with me. He wants Iowans to reward his retail politics campaign unlike what you've seen from a lot of the other candidates, which is heavy TV advertising, heavy PAC advertising. That has really changed the dynamic of this race. Candy, you heard Joe Johns a few moments ago talking about whether or not Newt Gingrich can even recover from this onslaught of negative PAC attacks that he's been subjected to over the last couple of weeks. Rick Santorum did not have to deal with any of that. He's been slowly but surely, quietly hitting every county in this state looking for votes. And this is almost for Rick Santorum, a race for third place, if you look at the latest CNN/ORC poll, the NBC/Marist poll that came out last week.

And that's why he and Rick Perry have been going at each other, had a quick moment to him about some of these attacks coming from Rick Perry, these criticisms from Rick Perry saying, you know, Rick Santorum, you were a big proponent of pork barrel projects and earmarks when you were senator of Washington. And he had kind of a sharp response to that, Candy. He said, look, Governor Perry has sent lobbyists to Washington to lobby on behalf of the State of Texas. So, Rick Santorum is not shrinking from the fight. He also had a little bit of a shot at Mitt Romney saying to Iowans, don't settle for something less just because you think that is what is going to win in this upcoming general election. So he's starting to sharpen the edges just a little bit. But he's sticking with the retail politics kind of message. And he's hoping that's going to deliver him on caucus night, Candy.

CROWLEY: Jim Acosta, I should point out one of the reasons reporters love Iowa is that in general, you can show up at an event with a candidate and say, hey, come on over here and talk to me and they actually do. After this, they get much bigger and it's hard to get to them. So, I'm glad you had...

(CROSSTALK) ACOSTA: That's right. That's true. We'll take what we can get.

CROWLEY: Thank you so much to Jim Acosta. You're absolutely right. Thank you so much to Jim Acosta and to Joe Johns.

Coming up, political analyst Ron Brownstein joins me to talk more about Mitt Romney's day.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to "Contenders 2012." We're taking the time this afternoon to let you hear from the 2012 presidential contenders, basically unfiltered, uninterrupted and in their own words. Sometimes live, sometimes on tape, but always unedited. We want to go first and give you a sort of a little bit of an idea of what Mitt Romney has been doing today. He woke up in New Hampshire and he touched down not too long ago here and was in Le Mars, Iowa, giving a little bit of his campaign speech.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is also Plymouth County, right? This is a republican county. This is a county that had the wisdom in the last general election to vote for John McCain. Don't we wish the entire state and the entire nation would have done that? But that didn't happen. I can tell you this, though, if I'm the republican nominee, I'll be back in Iowa to win the general election and we will win Iowa. We'll go to Washington with a mandate to make sure we get this country back on the right track. I'm going to be back in Iowa.


Now, when I came today to town, I wanted to make sure that my family got a chance to know something about this corner of Iowa. So I brought my son, Craig. My son, Craig, is the youngest in my family. And he has two boys of his own. But he happens to be with me -- what kind of ice cream? Oh, I remember, he had butter pecan I think. Come on up here, Craig, come to say hi, tell them something about your family or about your dad that they don't know. My son, Craig.


CRAIG ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S SON: Thank you. You know, it's a privilege to be out here on the campaign trail with my dad, to be back in Iowa. Again, it's really a pleasure to be out here. I want to tell you a quick story about my dad that you probably haven't heard before. My dad is a very competitive guy. And he's relentless. And we have this little tradition in our family where we do a family triathlon every year. So, we do a short little swim and a bike race and a run at the end. And my wife had just had a baby, she just had our second child a couple, about a month or two previously. And she decides to go for it and compete in the race. So, all the boys have finished at this point. And it was down to my wife and my dad over here.

ROMNEY: I tripped her.


CRAIG ROMNEY: And it was kind of in the home stretch in the run there. And she had a slight lead on him. And he said that in that moment, he decided he was going to win that race or he was going to die trying. And you see this fight to the finish, and he went for this -- he gave it everything he had. He gave it a good kick and he beat her in the end. And he did almost die trying, by the way.


He passed out in a lawn chair and we didn't see him the rest of the day. He barely made lot of life. But it's that type of hard work, it's that type of determination, I think, that we need in the White House. We need someone who can go in there and solve the challenges we're facing as a country. And my dad's the guy to do it. Thanks, guys.


ROMNEY: Thanks, Craig. Well, there's more to that. I changed the nature of the triathlon after that. I didn't like this idea that these -- swimming, biking and running. We had to add some sports. Now, we have log-sawing, nail-hammering. We've added some things I excel at. So I don't come in last every year. I get a few other things I can do well, so, it's a great family experience.


CROWLEY: All the things you learn out here on the campaign trail with the Republican and Democratic candidates. I am joined now by political analyst Ron Brownstein, CNN contributor. Did you know that story?

Just what America needs, a president who can be a new mother. Who knew?

Exactly. So, Mitt Romney, I mean, I have to say, I feel as though, just sort of watching this latest couple of weeks of theirs, that they really have set the bar pretty high here for Iowa. They've done a great job at saying, well, you know, Iowa, we're not going to spend all our time there. All of a sudden, it looked like it was doable. And now he feels though he has to do really well here.

RONALD BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Although, the potential from Mitt Romney is to do really well relatively simply by staying in place. I mean, this race is so fractured and fractionated that if Mitt Romney nearly holds or approaches the 25 percent that he got last time, he could finish very close to the top. I mean, the real story of this -- I think the real story of this Iowa caucuses is the way it's embodying the national dynamic in the republican race all throughout the past year. On the one hand, you have Romney who is making steady if not spectacular progress as consolidating the more centrist parts of the party, less religious, not non-Tea Party supporters and as we see nationally here in Iowa, no one is really consolidating the Tea Party and evangelical vanguard that is more resistance to him. And that leaves him in a relatively strong position even without some commanding level of support.

CROWLEY: Sure, because four years ago, we saw Mike Huckabee was the social conservative candidate, that whole bloc, the evangelicals, social conservatives all went to him. This time, it's, whether you go to Rick Perry, you go Michele Bachmann...


CROWLEY: You go to Santorum.

BROWNSTEIN: You know, in both the CNN/"Time" poll and the NBC/Marist poll, one who's getting more than 22, 24 percent of the evangelical vote here compared to Huckabee who had nearly half of it in 2008. And right now, if you look at the top tier of these polls have come out this week where you have Paul, Romney and Santorum in the top tier. You know, from the Romney campaign's point of view, if that really ends up being the top tier, it almost doesn't matter what order they finish in. Because basically, they have the two candidates in Paul and Santorum who they believe will have the most trouble growing into true national scale contenders and Iowa then suppress Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich who probably have more potential to attract the broader coalition if they can get a second win here. Both of them have suffered a lot of damage. Some of it self-inflicted, Perry and Gingrich, they need a second win. And if these polls hold up through Tuesday, Iowa will not give them that boost. And that will leave Mitt Romney in a strong position even if somebody else comes in first.

CROWLEY: And really we don't have a lot of time to change these polls. Aren't they a little frozen right now? I mean, it's New Year's Eve.


In fact, it's been celebrated, we've been showing it. But nonetheless, I mean, people now sort of do turn their attention to a holiday. So it's really only Monday to make, you know, what might be a major change in the polls. That doesn't seem doable.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. And all you do, as you know, you do run into plenty of voters here who are still weighing between Santorum and Perry or Perry and Romney. There could be some movement there. The other question is whether in those final hours, those more conservative voters who have been more skeptical of Romney say, look, we've got to kind of consolidate behind one candidate because obviously if he wins this state and then wins New Hampshire where he has a big lead, it is very difficult at that point. You know, no one has won South Carolina, which would probably be the last stop, the last stand for conservatives against Romney without winning or New Hampshire since South Carolina moved up since 1980. So, the challenge is real and if Iowa does not give kind of a reviving boost to Gingrich or Perry, the Romney people think they're in a very strong position.

CROWLEY: And if they -- let's say they pull this out by some ways or means, that Romney does come in first here. That's a pretty -- he is really -- those skids are grease for him, are they not?

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely. Look, I mean, you know, since 1980, South Carolina, the Iowa caucus assumed this modern form. South Carolina moved up. You've got five contested republican presidential nomination fights. In each of those fives, it's followed the same pattern. One candidate won Iowa, a second candidate won New Hampshire, one of the two wins South Carolina and that person won the nomination. So, if Mitt Romney wins Iowa, given his strength in New Hampshire, you would be in an A historic position, someone would have to go into South Carolina without winning Iowa or New Hampshire and, you know, basically stop him.

Now, just because it hasn't been done, doesn't mean it can't be done. But there is a way of history there, there is a reason why it hasn't happened in 30 years, which is that candidates kind of lose their viability more quickly than we often assume if they're not winning, if they're not at the top of the field, if they're not in the conversation. And coming -- if you're Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich and you don't finish near the top in Iowa or New Hampshire, going to South Carolina and then mobilizing those voters, especially those conservative Christian voters who might be more dubious of Romney, that is a tall order.

CROWLEY: Which is why we think that some of these folks, if they want to come out of Iowa will go, OK, let's go debate in New Hampshire but I'm going to South Carolina.

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely. South Carolina, look. For the conservatives who are dubious of Romney, South Carolina is the place to make the last stand. Because like Iowa in '08, 60 percent of that electorate define themselves as the evangelical Christians. Now, the problem is, if Iowa does not anoint one clear conservative alternative to Romney...

CROWLEY: They all go to South Carolina.

BROWNSTEIN: They all go to South Carolina and you're going to have a replay of what you saw here with those more conservative votes breaking up. You know, it's not only the evangelical Christians. It's those who identify with the Tea Party. If you look at your last CNN time poll, Romney was getting about a third of the voters who don't identify with the Tea Party. No one was getting more than a fifth of those who do. So, in each case, whether you think about it as the Tea Party or the evangelical side, the economic conservatives or the social conservatives, Romney is consolidating the moderate portion of the party more than anybody is, the more conservative portion of the party. And that is allowing him to have an advantage. Now, it's not a commanding advantage. It's not an overwhelming advantage. But it is, you know, kind of an increment of advantage that is putting him back sort of in the poll position in this race.

CROWLEY: He looks like -- Mitt Romney looks as though he played some pretty smart ball here, doesn't he? I mean, it was said, you know, Romney is not going to compete in Iowa. But it seems to me that he kept himself scarce to the media, to the national media.


CROWLEY: He was here but he was also in, you know, New Hampshire and he was also a little bit in South Carolina. And he played it very cautious. This is one of the most cautious campaigns I think I've seen.

BROWNSTEIN: The amount of time he spent here is about an eighth as much what he did in 2008.

CROWLEY: Fifteen days, according to the -- 15 days...

BROWNSTEIN: Seventy seven last time, it's about a fifth of what he did.

CROWLEY: Rick Santorum has been here 101 days.

BROWNSTEIN: And what she makes that case, in part of the problem Santorum would have, obviously if he wins Iowa, he will get a tremendous booth. But he can't replicate in South Carolina what he did here. You know, he's practically run for governor of Iowa, you know, and you only get to do that in one state. Jon Huntsman is doing it in New Hampshire. But you know, what? Romney has reminded me a little bit of Harry Reid in the democratic race, Senate race in 2010. He's put a lot of effort, he's picking his opponent. The Romney forces, obviously the super PAC not directly under his control, but it's kind of a thin tissue there because it's his former advisers. They put a lot of money into suppressing Newt Gingrich here.

They don't want Gingrich to emerge from here. They're not putting a lot of money into stopping Ron Paul or Rick Santorum. I mean, they are comfortable with a race if Santorum and Paul emerge from here in the top tier and Gingrich and Perry are lower down. That is not, you know, a troubling scenario for the Romney folks because they are dubious that either one of those can't truly develop into a full scale, a national challenger. Santorum is an interesting candidate, he's got this kind of blue collar populism that combines an economic nationalism talking about manufacturing with a culture of conservatism.

Someone is a reminiscent of Pat Buchanan in '96. He's kind of the message there. But you know, he really has no national presence, no national visibility. Hard for him to really parlay this as much as a Perry. If Perry gets a second wind out of here going to South Carolina as a southerner, as an evangelical protestant as oppose to Santorum in Northern Catholic might be easier for him to kind of make that last stand. So, the ideal scenario for them I think, regardless of a Romney, if Romney finishes in the top three, Paul, Santorum, Romney, any order is probably OK for them.

CROWLEY: For them. You know, what we talk a lot about the power of the evangelicals here in Iowa as well as in South Carolina and the social conservatives. But there's also some polling that shows, you know, this time around, these are not one-issue voters. This time around, they're interested in the economics of it. And they're interested in not having President Obama have a second term.

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely.

CROWLEY: So, how much -- I was just so taken with the electability question in our poll where Romney was 44 percent and everybody else, I think, was down in the high teens.


CROWLEY: How much do you think -- usually they say, it doesn't matter in Iowa. Iowa is going to vote, you know, their heart. You know, how much of that voting your head like who's the guy that can win, do you think, comes into play? Certainly it's been what Romney has been pushing.

BROWNSTEIN: Iowa has been willing to vote. It's hard. I mean, they have been willing to give significant amounts of votes to candidates who most of us would say, don't have a realistic chance of winning the primary in general. Mike Huckabee, in 2000, the combined evangelical vote for Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes exceeded the evangelical vote for George W. Bush. So, there are voters here willing to make a statement. But I think with the electability comes in as you move, not only here, but even Washington, as you move down the road. Just because Romney is stuck at around 25 percent or 30 percent in the national polls, that doesn't necessarily mean that all those other 70 percent are dead set against him.

And one of the things that may be happening, especially if he does well here and in New Hampshire is, you may have more voters saying, well, he's not my first choice, maybe I want somebody more consistently conservative than he is been. But you know, what? He looks like he can beat Obama and I'm not or this competitive with Obama and I am not going to go lay down in front of the train tracks. In other words, if Romney does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, the idea of a big stop Romney movement that some of these other candidates are hoping on, may be much more difficult to assemble in large part because of those findings on electability.

CROWLEY: And finally, the one name we haven't mentioned in that maybe for good reason, Michele Bachmann.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I mean, she's obviously really faded. She's faded here. Her high point was the straw poll last summer. If she continues to fade, that would be I think an important potential for someone like Santorum or Perry because she obviously is strongest among those most conservative elements of the party. You now, in some ways, it would be like what happened in New Hampshire in 2008 when Rudy Guiliani's collapse really freed the way for McCain to do well. If Bachmann continues to go down, you increase the odds that someone like Santorum or Perry can probably go up.

CROWLEY: Ron Brownstein, CNN contributor. Thank you so much for stopping by.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you, Candy.

CROWLEY: We also didn't mention Jon Huntsman but that's because he's not playing here in Iowa. You'll hear a lot more about him in New Hampshire where he has take his claim. We'll be right back after the break.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to "Contenders 2012," the republican candidates for president have three days to convince Iowa caucus goers that they should be president. We're listening to them this afternoon as they make their cases, sometimes live, sometimes taped. But always we try to give it to you in an unedited way, in a way that you can see what we see when we are traveling the countryside with these folks, as well as what Iowans more importantly see because they're the ones going to the caucuses Tuesday night.

Newt Gingrich has been campaigning across the state. This morning he was in Atlantic, Iowa, earlier. Gingrich is having a tough time. He came out like gangbusters at the beginning of December. He was pummeled by ads. And now shows up fourth in the latest CNN poll, dropping 19 points from that early December poll.

Our CNN's Joe Johns has been with Gingrich and is still in Atlantic, Iowa, following him -- Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Candy. One of the things that I take away from his appearance here in Atlantic -- they're gone now -- is that the Gingrich campaign, and the candidate specifically, are kind of looking forward already to New Hampshire and telling themselves, and even talking publicly about how things are going to be different next time.

You mentioned the attack ads. Gingrich has been under pressure to respond in kind to some of these attack ads that really brought him down in the polls. He insisted that he was going to run a positive campaign.

But at a media availability just a little while ago here, before we left, I asked him what he was going to do next time, how is he going to handle this and whether he would be able to continue to stay positive when Super PAC ads and ads from other candidates were just blasting him and bringing him down in the polls? Listen to that. And I'll talk a bit about it when we get on the other side.


JOHNS: Isn't it a big risk, though, throwing your whole campaign on this notion that you're going to be the guy who doesn't run nasty ads and everybody else is firing at you?

NEWT GINGRICH, (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is the opening three minutes of the Super Bowl. We're learning a lot about what our opponents will do. They are nastier and more dishonest than I expected. So we'll have to make some adjustments. But it's just like the Super Bowl. You see the opening series. You think about it. You figure out what you need to do next. It's going to be a very long game.

JOHNS: Another question. You mean adjustments, you mean before the caucuses? GINGRICH: No. Look, I think this is --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) -- donations to the campaign.


GINGRICH: No. Look, I think this is a wonderful experiment. And if you talk to people here, you get exactly the feeling I'm getting, which is, we have resolutely said, we're going to stay positive. Somebody said 45 percent of the ads in this state have been negative about me. So the average Iowan is watching this tsunami of negative attack ads. And they've watched one guy be consistently, relentlessly positive. And we'll find out Tuesday night -- I'm very -- whatever the outcome is Tuesday night, we'll learn a lot.




GINGRICH: Well, I think the challenge in Virginia isn't about the candidates. It's about the voters. For the voters of Virginia to be told that their options are limited to two people who, between them, are clearly a minority of the Republican votes, is probably unacceptable. But I'm glad that it's all the candidates who get away from this Gingrich in Virginia routine. Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, Huntsman, all five of us are saying, there ought to be some -- this should not be a gauntlet to figure out how you can make it virtually impossible to run for president. This ought to be a system that enables the voters to decide who they want to have run for president. I hope that the legislature will find a solution that puts all of us on the ballot.


JOHNS: Newt Gingrich is also getting a little help from his friends here in Iowa, even though he clearly is looking forward to some other states. I woke up this morning, turned on the TV and saw this half- hour program featuring Michael Reagan, the son of the former president -- "Newsmax" program, 30 minutes -- airing all over the state, featuring Newt Gingrich. So he does have some friends out there who are trying to make a difference to see if they can pull him up in the polls in time for the caucuses -- Candy?

CROWLEY: Our Joe Johns.

Joe, Ron Brownstein was just here. And he did note the number of folks out there who say they still haven't made up their minds about who they'll caucus for. So there certainly is room for Gingrich to bring up those poll numbers. What's he -- realistically, what do the folks around him think he can pull in the caucus night on Tuesday?

JOHNS: Well, you get the sense that people think this is still a bit wide open because you know, and I know, there's a large percentage of people who make up their minds in the last couple of days, some who say they actually make up their minds on the day of the caucuses. So Newt Gingrich is pushing some buttons, too, because he knows people say they do not like negative advertising, even though many people say it works, they say they don't like it. He's saying to them, OK, put your money where your mouth is. If you don't like these negative ads, then go ahead and vote for a guy who's not putting out negative ads and send a message to those who are. He's hoping that makes a difference. He's hoping his conservative credentials make a difference. And I think he's really -- he's pushing people in this state to see him as the Reaganesque character, if you will, who they can count on to do well in November. Interesting to see how that message plays.

CROWLEY: Joe Johns who has been in Atlantic, Iowa, for us today.

Joe, thank you so much for sticking around. We appreciate your time.

Michele Bachmann's slide in the poll is not souring her spirits. We'll head to one of her campaign stops when we return.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to CNN's "The Contenders, 2012." We continue to delve into the issues on the presidential campaign. This hour, we are letting you hear from the contenders as they spell out their ideas for the future of the United States.

Shannon Travis, I think, is joining us from Urbandale, Iowa.

I know, Shannon, that, in fact you have been -- that was Bachmann's last scheduled stop of the day. How did you find her?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: She was upbeat. That was one of the key questions that I talked to her about, Candy, how are you feeling right now? She was positive, upbeat, saying, we're going on to win. Of course, that defies what a lot of the polls are saying. Her poll standing has dropped dramatically, as we all know, since her Ames Straw Poll win in the summer. She's had some distractions, most recent with this whole -- her Iowa state director leaving, defecting over to the Ron Paul campaign. And accusations from Michele Bachmann herself that he was offered money, accusations that he denies. So there have been some distractions in these final few days. But she was pretty upbeat.

Right behind me, you have some of her key, loyal supporters, phone banking for her. A coordinator said, we need everybody to go on their Facebook and tell their friends to make phone calls for Michele Bachmann. They're hoping they can squeeze out 500,000 of them before caucus.

But earlier, I spoke with Michele Bachmann herself when she was here at the headquarters. And we talked about the mood and the days ahead. Take a listen, Candy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, (R), MINNESOTA & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wonderful, fantastic. We just completed our 99-county tour in Iowa. No other candidate has attempted that. We just saw incredible enthusiasm. We had thousands of people flip and go my way. So we're really looking forward to Tuesday night.

TRAVIS: Why the choice to race through the 99 counties at the very end as opposed to doing it since the summer --


BACHMANN: We did. Probably, no other candidate spent more time going through all of Iowa last summer. That's why I won the Iowa straw poll. But we wanted to make sure that we went back a second time. And so we went to all 99 counties to make sure that every Iowan, when they're making their final decision, had a chance to be able to come out. I could listen to them, they could ask me questions, and that's why we literally saw thousands of people flipping. And they're very excited. And now they're going to tell their people -- their friends at church, their co-workers, they're sending out e-mail lists, they're Facebooking. They're our best recruiters. They're going to bring all their friends out. And I think we're going to be very excited about what we see on Tuesday.

TRAVIS: Since your Ames Straw Poll win, you've even talked about some of your poll numbers flipping, plummeting a little bit. In our latest CNN poll, you were sixth in Iowa. Not doing so well in New Hampshire. What is the strategy going forward, beyond Tuesday?

BACHMANN: Well, Tuesday, we intend to win here in Iowa. That's our plan. And we think we're going to do extremely well here in Iowa.


BACHMANN: And that's going to be the cannon shot. Nice the cannon shot that's going to launch us across the country. We'll be heading out, taking on state after state after state. The ultimate goal is to defeat Barack Obama, make him a one-term president, so the country has a chance to grow again. And that's my plan, to repeal Obama-care, repeal Dodd/Frank, abolish the tax -- and give these kids a chance for their future. That's the whole goal.

TRAVIS: Let's talk about New Hampshire. What is the strategy after Tuesday going into New Hampshire?

BACHMANN: We've worked hard. We laid a lot of foundation in New Hampshire. So we'll go there and we'll make our case to the voters. We have a lot of Tea Party support up in New Hampshire. But we see this as a full race of all 50 states. So yesterday, we just sent in our applications to the Iowa ballot and the Kansas ballot. We're looking at all 50 states. And we think we will be the nominee to defeat Barack Obama. We need a strong woman in the pattern of a Ronald Reagan and a Margaret Thatcher to take him on and defeat him. That's what happened in 1980. Everyone said a conservative could never win against Jimmy Carter and it was just the opposite. We needed the strongest conservative we could have. It's the same thing now. I've proven that I am the strong, consistent core conservative in this race. That's what we need. And I'm fearless.


TRAVIS: So, Candy, there you have it. It's an uphill climb for the Congresswoman to win here in Iowa and to go on to those 50 states that she just mentioned. But we'll see what kind of standings she has come Tuesday night and whether that will propel her to more momentum or whether it will stall it -- Candy?

CROWLEY: Shannon Travis, once again. Yeoman's work for us today here. Thank you so much for joining us this afternoon. We really appreciate your work.

Rick Perry may be down in the polls, but he is campaigning hard in Iowa. And that is up next after this break.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to "The Contenders, 2012." This is our effort to try to give to you some sense of what the political campaign trail has been like here for these presidential contenders as they have done for the last year and a half, some of them two years. And the speeches they are giving, we give those to you as unedited as we can, large chunks of them, sometimes live, sometimes taped but, nonetheless, in their own words. So you can be a pretend-Iowan for today and listen to what these candidates have had to say.

CNN's political reporter, Peter Hamby, joins us now from Boone, Iowa. He's been there with Rick Perry in Ft. Dodge and now in Boone.

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Hey, Candy. Yes, Rick Perry's been doing a marathon bus tour of the state. He only did two events today. He usually does three or four. He packed the house here in Boone. He's been getting very big crowds. The poll numbers don't exactly show that. But his campaign is really trying to sign people up. And they have the organization hopefully to get them out on Tuesday night.

He told the crowd earlier today what he would bring to the table as president having served 10 years as governor of Texas. Take the listen to what he had to say.


RICK PERRY, (R), GOVERNOR OF TEXAS & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Executive governing experience is really important. As we go to Washington and use that experience -- I highly respect everyone else that's running, as I said earlier in my remarks. But the fact is, I'm the only person who has a record of creating jobs from that executive governing position. No one else has done that before.


HAMBY: So that's sort of a muddled message a little bit from Perry. He's trying to cast himself as the outsider in this race compared to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. At the same time, he has been in government, in some form or another, since 1985. But his closing argument here, I can create jobs, I know what to do and I'm going to go into Washington and mix things up there -- Candy?

CROWLEY: Peter, what are they telling you about what next after Iowa? Win, lose or draw?

HAMBY: Yes, got an interesting e-mail from the Perry campaign today, actually from a South Carolina team, saying, all of a sudden, that Perry's going straight to South Carolina after the caucuses on January 4th to campaign in a couple of spots down there, instead of New Hampshire. So he's probably going to appear in a couple of debates in New Hampshire. But it looks like he's going to focus, if he does well here in Iowa, all in in South Carolina after this -- Candy?

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

Our final thoughts from Iowa when we come back.


CROWLEY: Welcome back to the final moments of "The Contenders, 2012." We hope you got a chance to take a real up-close look at some of these candidates. As we wrap up today, some final thoughts.

Political editor, Paul Steinhauser, joins me now.

Let's talk about New Hampshire going forward and -- difficult to do, since we're not exactly sure how it will shake out. But what are we hearing about the plans from some of these campaigns?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I know you were just talking to Peter Hamby and governor of Texas, Rick Perry, going on to South Carolina, not going right to New Hampshire. But he will be in New Hampshire for those debates. There's two debates next weekend in New Hampshire. He will be there, and any other candidates that survive, like Michele Bachmann. Let's say she does continue on. I bet she does go to South Carolina first. But will definitely be at those debates. These debates have been definitely defined the primaries and caucuses so far. They've been outsized in importance compared to what you and I have saw four years ago -- Candy?

CROWLEY: Yes. There are some candidates who will either get fueled by what happens on Tuesday night. Others will begin to take on some water. And then there's candidates, like Ron Paul, who, I think, we look at and say, it doesn't matter what he does. He may do quite well, according to our poll, but he's going to go on.

STEINHAUSER: Yes. He's going to go on. He's going to win 10 to 15, maybe 20 percent of the votes in all of these contests. He may go all the way to the convention.

You know, I was watching you, tossed all these live events today, but we didn't see any from Ron Paul because he's back home in Texas this weekend spending the holiday with his wife.

CROWLEY: Laudable. We applaud that. STEINHAUSER: Yes. Good for him.

CROWLEY: But it's a big, silent confidence of Iowa.

STEINHAUSER: Yes, well, he is the frontrunner, according to the most recent polls, NBC/Maris, which came out yesterday, and our own CNN/"Time"/ORC poll, which came out on Wednesday. We'll see what the "Des Moines Register" poll has tonight.

You know, the thing I think about with Ron Paul -- I've covered him over the years. You have, a lot. His followers are so energetic, enthusiastic they will come out on caucus day here in Iowa, whether he's in a cave or here or anywhere. I think you can count on that, whereas, some of the other supporters for some of the other candidates may not be as fervor.

CROWLEY: So in our final minute, I'm going to ask you what I've asked a couple of people over the last couple of days, which is, like, is there a big surprise waiting anywhere. Like if you look at someone and say, this person surprised us?

STEINHAUSER: I think the surprise is already out of the hat and that's Rick Santorum --


STEINHAUSER: -- because he came out of nowhere and now he is one of the -- not a front-runner, but he's in third place in the last two polls. That was the surprise. And it's already happened.

And I'm looking forward to your interview tomorrow with Ron Paul. I really want to hear why he's not up here. I really want to hear exactly why he's not here.

CROWLEY: What's interesting is, lots of times, when we've been in Washington and interviewed him, he's been in Texas. So he does tend to go home on the weekends. Just this last weekend, you would think that perhaps he would stay home -- perhaps he would be here.

STEINHAUSER: Be here, yes.

CROWLEY: But, you know, he's got the candidates -- the voters, as you say, who are going to run on the there and vote for him, no matter where he is.

Thank you so much, Paul Steinhauser. We appreciate it.

That will do it for me today. Please join us again tomorrow with "The Contenders, 2012." But right now, we go to Natalie Allen in the NEWSROOM -- Natalie?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you so much, Candy.

We'll have a look at the day's top stories ahead, including good news for Verizon customers. But first, a look at the New Year's celebrations. Sydney, Australia rang in the New Year almost 10 hours ago with a brilliant fireworks display. This is Hong Kong, which is 13 hours ahead of the U.S. And in Vatican City, the pope held mass and gave thanks for the past (INAUDIBLE).






ALLEN: Now a look at our top stories.

In Syria, huge crowds turning out in protests across the country again today and the death toll has grown. An activists network reports 13 people died in clashes with security forces today. 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.

North Korea's leader ushers in 2012 with a new title. It was announced today that Kim Jong-Un has assumed the role of supreme commander of North Korea's million-man military. The announcement comes a day after Pyongyang said a change in leadership would not mean a change in policy. The State Department plans to send a diplomat to the region in the coming months.

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

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

As we close in on the Iowa caucuses Tuesday, Mitt Romney is surfacing as the leader but five of the other candidates are on the ground fighting for the win. They have just two more days to convince Iowans to support their candidacy before Tuesday's caucuses.

Coming up on CNN NEWSROOM, at 7:00 p.m. eastern, I'll talk to the mayor of West Hollywood, California, about a 21-fire arson spree.



(END VIDEO CLIP) ALLEN: The fires set in rapid procession in the Hollywood have prompted a $60,000 reward. 17 were set in Hollywood, four others in West Hollywood, all of them within a two-square mile area. Property damage estimated at $350,000. Extra police have been deployed and cops are pouring through surveillance tapes.

I'm Natalie Allen at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "THE SITUATION ROOM" is next.