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Iowa's Late Bloomer: Rick Santorum; What it Takes to Beat President Obama; Ron Paul: "I'm Pretty Electable"

Aired January 1, 2012 - 21:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from the CNN Election Center.

Lots of news unfolding as we're counting down to the Iowa caucuses, now less than 48 hours away. So what happens during these final days and minutes? Certainly whatever happens could go a long way to deciding who wins the Republican presidential nomination.

In just a few minutes, I'll speak with the latest candidate to see his fortunes surge in Iowa. We're talking about the former Senator Rick Santorum.

But let's go to CNN's Joe Johns right now. He's covering Santorum's surge. He's joining us from Des Moines. You know, I think Rick Santorum believed in himself. Not a whole lot of others, Joe, did. But it's been quite amazing over these past few days how well he's done.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's true, Wolf. And, you know, more than half of the Republicans who participated in this process the last time around viewed themselves as evangelical Christians, Born Again Christians.

So it might be a little risque to compare this process to a seduction, but Rick Santorum has gone a long way. He says the other candidates in the race are speed dating, and he says what he's been doing is a courtship.


RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have done literally 358 or 359 town hall meetings in the State of Iowa. We've been to all 99 counties, and we weren't speed dating.

JOHNS (voice-over): Rick Santorum's polling numbers, his surge in the race for Iowa, is starting to look like love. Though the question is, what took so long for a staunch conservative who's been courting the state for months to finally get some traction?

SANTORUM: The crowds are bigger. But I think they'd be bigger in any surge because people are focused.

JOHNS: And for some of those evangelicals and social conservatives, he's been with them on all of their issues for so long. It's as if they're just now remembering he's actually in the race. Anti- abortion, anti-gay marriage, Pro National Rifle Association. On the right side, the far right side, of many things that matter to them most.

One Santorum selling point is that he appears to have no serious baggage compared to others. Because he was vetted during his years in Congress.

SANTORUM: You know, I got a thorough cleansing, if you will, when I ran in 2006. I had everybody look at everything, and had national profiles and everything else. You know, the answer is I've been through this.

JOHNS: That 2006 Senate re-election campaign haunts him. He got crushed in his home state, Pennsylvania, a battleground state. So why would the Republican Party risk giving the nomination to a guy who got bounced out of office like that? Answer number one, it was a tough year.

SANTORUM: It was - it was the worst election for Republicans in, you know, probably - maybe in the history of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.

JOHNS: Answer number two, to explain that drubbing in the Senate election principle. He got advice to moderate his positions in order to suit the voters' moods, but he refused.

SANTORUM: Yes, I lost, but I stood for what I believed in. And, you know, my feeling was, you know, there's one thing worse than losing and that's sacrificing your principles. I wouldn't do it. I didn't do it and -

JOHNS: Democrats poke fun, of course, pointing out this humorous ad that makes Santorum look like quite the compromiser.

SANTORUM: Barbara Boxer and I wrote a law protecting open space. I'm even working with Hillary Clinton to limit inappropriate material in children's video games, because it makes more sense to wrestle with America's problems than with each other.

JOHNS: He's also gotten slammed for earmarking while in Congress. He argues there was nothing wrong with it.

SANTORUM: Yes, well, I did.

JOHNS: But make no mistake. Standing up for conservative social issues has defined Rick Santorum's career, to the point that some Republicans who know him point out he's gotten pigeonholed.

RON BONJEAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He's really revolved himself around social issues like abortion. And when you're talking about the economy as the number one issue to Americans in Republican primary voters, you know, he's speaking their one language when he needs to speak - speak everything to voters right now.


JOHNS: One more factoid that's been making the rounds - on one more factoid that's been making the rounds on Santorum today is that he actually endorsed Mitt Romney four years ago for president. Now, of course, he's in a contest with Mitt Romney. I saw Romney out in Atlantic, Iowa, today on the campaign trail. And he certainly managed to fit in a little comment about that endorsement - Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Johns in Des Moines for us. Joe, thanks very much.

Let's speak to Senator Rick Santorum right now. He's joining us. Senator Santorum, you want to quickly respond to that endorsement of Mitt Romney four years ago? Because Romney, as you heard, is having some fun with it. In fact, I'll play the clip, if you want to hear it. Listen to this.


MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Santorum was kind enough to endorse me last time around. I appreciate that. And - and we've been friends. I can tell you that our backgrounds are quite different.

Like Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum has spent his career in the government, in Washington, nothing wrong with that. But it's a very different background than I have.


BLITZER: All right. He listed you as a Washington insider in fact like Newt Gingrich. Go ahead, Senator Santorum, speak directly to Mitt Romney.

SANTORUM: Well, first off, I endorsed Mitt Romney I think five days before Super Tuesday. I didn't endorse anybody for a long time.

My focus in the 19 - excuse me - in the 2008 election was on making sure that we had someone other than John McCain. That - that is what I was publicly stating. Because I thought he would not be a stRong candidate for us in the general election. I didn't think he'd be the best candidate for us to do the things that were necessary for this country.

And so my principal purpose, I said this from the very beginning, I was going to wait and see who was the person who was the best able to defeat John McCain and when the time came, I waited. It became a two person race after Florida right before Super Tuesday and I chose the person who I thought was better, a more conservative alternative than John McCain. You know, I made a judgment. And I - and I supported Mitt Romney.

With respect to the issue about - I get a kick out of this with Governor Romney. I mean, Newt said this at the debate. I mean, Governor Romney, it's not like he hasn't tried to be a career politician. He just hasn't been successful. So that doesn't - that doesn't mean that any one of us is - I mean, I ran in a very tough state as a conservative. Beat Democratic incumbents which he's never done. Won as a conservative in a swing state, which he's never done. And this is a race. This is a political race. And it's actually probably good to have some experience.

I have experience on national security that he does not have. I mean, he may have business experience, but you're not the CEO of the country. You're the Commander in Chief of the country. That's your principal responsibility. He has absolutely no experience in that regard. I do.

I've served eight years on the Armed Services Committee. I was a leader with Barbara Boxer and, yes, that's one of the things I talked about, the ad about working with people. Yes, I'll work with people when I agree with them even though they may disagree on the majority of other issues, and I did.

BLITZER: Senator, you know, you're doing amazingly well in this Des Moines Register Poll. In fact, on their final day of polling, you and Romney were basically in a statistical tie right now.

Here's the question. What do you do after Iowa? Let's say you win in Iowa. Mike Huckabee won in Iowa four years ago, but he didn't get the nomination. How do you make sure you can parlay that into a win for the Republican nomination?

SANTORUM: Well, again, you know, Mitt Romney said we come from different backgrounds. I do. I come from the northeast. I come from a working-class, blue-collar town of Butler, Pennsylvania. And I grew up in a steel town and in an ethnic neighborhood. And you know, a lot of those neighborhoods look a lot like the neighborhoods in Manchester, Nashua and a whole host of other towns in New Hampshire.

And we've spent a lot of time there, unlike Mike who four years ago didn't spend a lot of time in New Hampshire. I have. I've been there more than anybody according to "The Washington Post" than Jon Huntsman who's basically been living up there.

So we've got a great grassroots base of support. You go by our office in Bedford it's full. We've been making phone calls for weeks, not just in the last few days. We have over 20 state representatives who have joined our team. We have a state senator. In fact, (INAUDIBLE) others who have stepped up. We've got strong support there.

We're going to make a - we're going to make a splash when we get to New Hampshire the day after - after Iowa, and we're going to do well up there. I'm not saying we're going to win, I mean, but we're going to do - we're going to do a lot better than people think.

BLITZER: So you're not just going to ignore New Hampshire. You're going to New Hampshire, and then you'll go to South Carolina? Because some of your -

SANTORUM: Yes. BLITZER: -- some of the other Republican candidates look like they're just going to focus in - on South Carolina and assume that Mitt Romney has it wrapped up in New Hampshire.

SANTORUM: Well, the bottom line is, if you want to win the Republican nomination, that's great. But I want to win the general election. That means we've got to compete in states like New Hampshire, which is a great swing state. We've got to compete in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana. Those are the states that I think I can run well and just like I'm running well here in Ohio - excuse me, in Iowa, which is exactly - exactly what we need from a nominee in this party.

BLITZER: What are you going to do if the attack ads, the negative ads that really hurt - if you can hear me? Can you hear me okay? Can you hear me now, senator? Are you there, senator? It's Wolf. Can you hear me?

I think we lost - stand by for a moment. We'll try to reconnect with Senator Santorum.

But let me walk over to John King. You know, he's a front-runner now. I think you can say, he's about to get what we shall call the Newt Gingrich experience. The attack ads, I suspect, are about to begin.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If he gets a strong Iowa showing. If he wins comes in a strong second, he gets the bounce from Iowa, then we'll see what happens.

Again, we're waiting to see. But let's compare. Let's go back in time. The question is, if Rick Santorum does what Mike Huckabee did four years ago, how does he bounce out?

You mentioned, Wolf, that Mike Huckabee did not do well in New Hampshire. Let's take out the map. This is 2008 Republican Primary. See, Mike Huckabee didn't do very well. Why? A very different state. Very few evangelical, Born Again Christian conservative voters in the State of New Hampshire.

However, you heard Senator Santorum just there with Wolf talking about his economic message. There are a lot of, as he said, a lot of gritty blue-collar voters down here in this part of the state especially. Gun owners up in this part of the state. That would be his appeal, trying to do what Huckabee did not do, expand beyond the evangelical voters.

If he can try to do that in New Hampshire, that would be a huge challenge. One of the questions, Wolf, is if he has the resources to do that? Would he raise enough money?

If he did fairly well in New Hampshire, then he would become a giant factor in the race in South Carolina. Because here you see the orange here, this is Huckabee 2008. A good number, like Iowa, about half of the voters in the South Carolina primary describe themselves as evangelical, Born Again Christians.

So could Senator Santorum do what Governor Huckabee did? Here's the question mark, though. John McCain narrowly won South Carolina. Why? What matters is not just how Senator Santorum does. How many of the other conservatives stay in the race?

Fred Thompson, 16 percent, his best showing in 2008 in the State of South Carolina cost Mike Huckabee the state. Had Fred Thompson dropped out, Huckabee probably would have won South Carolina and blocked John McCain from being the nominee.

So the evangelical voters do matter here, Wolf, hugely. Also depends on how many candidates you have in the race. And as Senator Santorum just said, if he wants to expand from Iowa into New Hampshire, the economic message will become key there. Can he take on Governor Romney, Governor Huntsman in a state where they have spent a lot of time talking about the economy and national security?

BLITZER: All right, John. We've re-established contact with Senator Santorum.

Senator, I was going to ask you about - you saw what happened to Newt Gingrich, how his numbers went down, down, down, down when the attack ads, negative ads really bombarded him in Iowa. I was there last week. I couldn't believe all those ads.

You know that's about potentially happen to you. Are you ready for that?

SANTORUM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, you don't get into this race and thinking that people aren't going to say bad things about you. And, you know, I've said I'm the most consistent conservative. I've never said I'm perfect. I've made mistakes. And out here on the stump I've owned up to them.

And whether it's the vote for No Child Left Behind, not like I was an advocate for it, but I ended holding my nose and voting for it. It was a mistake.

I think this is the difference. You never see me go out and advocate for things that are antithetical (ph) to the basic core values of conservative principles and of American values as Republicans and conservatives understand it. And that's why I think I'll hold up very well and we're going to have the resources and we're going to have the grassroots team in both New Hampshire and South Carolina to do very, very well there. I'm not - I'm not concerned about that at all.

BLITZER: I don't know if you heard John King's report. But he was talking about four years ago in South Carolina where McCain barely won. Huckabee came in second. But, you know, Fred Thompson got, what, 16 percent.

What are you saying to some of these other Republicans about dropping out potentially, if assuming you're going to be emerging from Iowa as a front-runner?

SANTORUM: Well, I think there's a very strong movement. We've - we've seen it here in Iowa. I saw it in - even in New Hampshire. Where people are concerned about the - really about the electability, not just the electability of Governor Romney, but also about, you know, making sure that we elect someone who's going to do what's necessary to make the changes that America needs.

And, you know, I think we want someone that we can trust in that position. So I'm very confident that as we come out of Iowa, and if we come out in a strong position, and we hope that we do, that the conservatives will coalescing around the, you know, person who has the best chance of carrying that conservative message and dividing that vote obviously is a - is a sure fire election of someone who doesn't reflect those values and hasn't - hasn't been that stalwart that I have in my time in public service.

BLITZER: Rick Santorum is in the Rock Rapids, Iowa. He's got some supporters behind him. Senator, good luck. We hope to see you on our election coverage Tuesday night when they count those votes. We hope you'll be able to join us then. Thanks very much, Senator.

SANTORUM: You're welcome. Thank you very much, Wolf. I appreciate it. It's great being here in Lyon County, Iowa. This is the hardest Santorum County here in Iowa. We've got a great crowd here, about 200-plus people. And we're - we've got great crowds everywhere and we're very, very excited. Thanks for the opportunity.

BLITZER: He's done it the old-fashioned way. He's worked really hard in Iowa.

Senator, thanks very much. Good luck to you.

Well, Ron Paul is firing back at his critics who say he can't and wouldn't be elected president. Stand by for his interview with our own Candy Crowley.

And are the Iowa caucuses all they're cracked up to be? We're taking a closer look at whether this leadoff contest in the nation really matters in the end.


BLITZER: By this time Tuesday night, we could know which Republican is the winner in Iowa. It's the first test of the candidates to see if they have what it takes to challenge President Obama.

Let's go back to Erin Burnett and Gloria Borger. They're taking a closer look at the numbers - Erin.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right. And I - we wanted to actually switch-up how we were going to do this, Wolf, just because of your interview with Rick Santorum. Because at the end, you know, you saw him smiling and just that sort of -


BURNETT: -- connecting, and as Wolf said, working hard.

BORGER: Absolutely. Yes. BURNETT: I wanted to show you this. Who best relates to Iowans in the latest Des Moines Register Poll? And this is where you see that hard work coming through. Rick Santorum, 20 percent.

BORGER: Right.

BURNETT: And Michele Bachmann very high.

BORGER: Michele Bachmann has traveled to all 99 counties in the state. So has Rick Santorum. And I bet Ron Paul is pretty close.


BORGER: These are the people who spent the most time in the state. Iowans feel like they know them. I mean, you saw Rick Santorum. He's been traveling around in a truck with his chief of staff and they're kind of hanging out in every county.

You look at the person, though, the question, who best relates, Mitt Romney only 10 percent to Iowans. A, he hasn't been there a lot and, B, even when he's there, they know him from 2008. He didn't do so well in 2008, so there are still these reservations about him.

BURNETT: And this is going to be interesting here as we - as we go through these questions.

The next one I want to show - by the way, I like that, how I just trash it.

BORGER: I know. Love it.

BURNETT: OK. Who is the most consistent? Now, this is - this is interesting. You also see Santorum scoring about the same as Mitt Romney.


BURNETT: Ron Paul. And I guess this isn't surprising, right? I mean, he has been very consistent over the years.

BORGER: Right. As Dana Bash was pointing out, Ron Paul has an agenda, small government, get rid of the debt. Get out of the wars. Easy to say. Easy to understand. Consistency.


BORGER: And either you like it or you don't.

BURNETT: And interesting, Mitt Romney with all the - the finger pointing on flip-flopping and, OK, you had this view on abortion, now you have that view -

BORGER: Et cetera.

BURNETT: -- but still coming in second. Now, I mean, you've seen that dramatically lower. BORGER: And Santorum has that problem, too. The other candidates are pointing out, well, maybe you're not so conservative. Maybe you were for those earmarks.


BORGER: He said, yes, I was. I've made some mistakes. So there's a question with that, too, for Santorum.

BURNETT: All right. I'm going to trash this one because this one is the big one.

BORGER: All right. OK.

BURNETT: Who is the most electable? Now, this is where you see Iowans saying, but the reality is, even though we may not connect with the guy.

BORGER: Right. The key to Romney's success will be the electability question. And since we just saw Rick Santorum, seven percent electability. This is a man who lost his last Senate race as Erick Erickson pointed out. There are clearly questions about that.

Same for Newt Gingrich. And, of course, for Ron Paul and Perry. So, again, this is Romney's ticket if, when people go to the caucuses, they actually think about electability or somebody they like. We just don't know until we see that entrance poll on Tuesday.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thank you, Gloria. We shall see, Wolf. But, obviously, this - this picture shows it right here. It really all comes down to electability for Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: It gives us a good snapshot of what's going on in Iowa right now, guys, thank you.

We're watching the last big push in Iowa before the caucuses Tuesday night. We'll have an update on the last-minute pitches, the last- minute attacks as well.

And Iowa is just one small step toward getting the delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination. What does it take to reach the magic numbers? Stay with us.


BLITZER: Ron Paul makes a whistle stop train tour across Iowa tomorrow along with his son, the U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Even though the congressman spent today with his wife in Texas, he spoke with our Chief Political Correspondent, Candy Crowley, on this morning's edition of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."

Candy is joining us once again from Des Moines. Candy, how did that go?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was interesting, Wolf. He, of course, he's pleased that he is running second in the Iowa caucuses and believes that he's in a very strong position.

But we talked about another number in that Des Moines Register Poll, and that is where he scored the highest. And the question was who is the least electable? So I asked him about that.


RON PAUL, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm pretty electable. I was elected 12 times once people got to know me in my own congressional district. So I think that might be more propaganda than anything else. So we'll wait and see. We'll know a lot more about how the election goes tomorrow.

CROWLEY: Well, being elected among folks that know you in a small district in Texas is - is somewhat of a less daunting task than across the country. And there is the feeling, and I'm sure you've heard your colleagues say, he's not electable. He's too far outside the mainstream. His views on foreign policy, et cetera, et cetera.

I wanted you to respond again to that, but I want you to listen. You've been very tough on Newt Gingrich, calling him a serial hypocrite, et cetera, et cetera. And he replied in kind and I want you to take a listen to what he had to say.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I think as a protest, he's a very reasonable candidate. As a potential president, a person who thinks the United States was responsible for 9/11, a person who believes - who wrote in his newsletter that the World Trade Center bombing in '93 might have been a CIA plot, a person who believes it doesn't matter if the Iranians have a nuclear weapon, I'd rather just say you look at Ron Paul's total record of - of systemic avoidance of reality, and you look at his newsletters, and then you look at his ads. His ads are about as accurate as his newsletters.

CROWLEY: So, Congressman Paul, you have denounced these newsletters that he's talking about. But, again, the idea that your views are outside the mainstream about 9/11 and so many other things, your reaction?

PAUL: Well, that's a gross distortion. And you could spend a long time trying to, you know, dispute what he's saying. But it's gross distortion.

But the bigger question is, is why are the rallies going so well for me? Why are the crowds getting bigger and bigger? Why is it that 70 percent of the American people want us to get out of Afghanistan? Why do about 85 percent of the people want us to rein in the Federal Reserve? Why do so many especially conservative Republicans want us to cut back and nobody is offering any cuts?

So I always say that I'm pretty mainstream. I think that people who are attacking me now are the ones who can't defend their records and they've been all over the place. They've been flip-flopping and they can't defend themselves and they're having a little trouble finding any flip-flops on me. So they have to go and dig up and distort and demagogue issues. But if you look at the real issues that count, and I wished we would have commented on that, that is the foreign policy, the spending, the monetary policy, the personal liberties that I talk about all the time, and under those - with those conditions, this is where I get the support. And not only is it with Republicans, but these views are really, really, you know, attractive to the Independents and the Democrats.

So the rallies, it is true. People say, oh, well, he's going to have some independents come in. Well, that's the name of the game. You get people. You bring coalitions together. You get the frustrated progressives. You get the independents. You get the Republicans who truly want spending cuts. And all of the sudden I'm mainstream. So they're looking for things. They're struggling and they're demagoguing the issue.

CROWLEY: Give me a prediction here in our last 30 seconds, Congressman. Are you going to pull this out in Iowa? And if you do, what does it mean for the future of your campaign?

PAUL: I have no idea what's going to happen. I may come in first. I may come in second. I doubt if I'll come in third or fourth. And the future of the campaign for liberty will always be ongoing. And I think we're going to have a good showing. We already have and we're doing quite well in New Hampshire.

So I would say that the momentum for the cause of freedom in this country and restoration of the constitution, sensible foreign policy and addressing the Federal Reserve and our economic crisis and spending, I would say the people are with me on this. And the momentum is going to continue regardless of exactly what happens in what place I am on Tuesday night.


CROWLEY: Ron Paul earlier today on "STATE OF THE UNION."

Joining me now tonight, Alex Castle, Ron Brownstein, stalwart fellows. Thank you for being here. Let me run some scenarios by you.

Ron Paul wins Iowa. How big a problem is that?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I don't think it's ultimately a problem in terms of the nomination for Mitt Romney or - or Rick Santorum. I mean, as we talked about before, I think it's striking, it's notable that the Romney campaign has spent a lot of time both in the debates and then their super PAC that is aligned with them going after Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, but not touching Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

CROWLEY: Because I don't think they're threats.

BROWNSTEIN: They think they are very comfortable with those candidates emerging from Iowa as seemingly the principal alternative is because they don't believe that either one for different reasons can truly build a national campaign, especially Ron Paul. He's the kind of candidate who has a strong floor, but his ceiling may not be that much above it.

CROWLEY: Wait, Alex, just be -- let's accept for a moment that he's unelectable, as they have spent all week long, his opponent, saying. That doesn't mean he's not a problem in the Republican -- to these Republicans, does it?

CASTELLANOS: Well, I'll tell you why a strong Ron Paul finish here matters. It matters a lot to Mitt Romney. If Ron Paul comes out of here in first or second place with a lot of momentum, he'll raise a ton of money. And what can Ron Paul do with that money? A ton of negative ads against Mitt Romney.

The biggest threat to Mitt Romney is not Ron Paul's candidacy, but Ron Paul's negative campaign. It matters. I don't think he's going to do that. He said in your interview there, I think you've got something important, that he wasn't expecting to finish third. He may well do that. And I think that's going to depress his fundraising and make him less relevant.

CROWLEY: I thought that was a mistake, too, when I heard it from Paul saying, well, I don't think I'm going to place first -- third. It'll be first or second. Is there life for Ron Paul after this campaign -- after Iowa if he comes in third to Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, no, like Jesse Jackson in the Democratic party in the 1980s, he is the kind of candidate who can go on for a long time, because he has a deeply committed base. I mean, this is kind of the paradox of these purely -- these candidates with a very pure ideology. I mean, they appeal to a certain segment of the electorate, who likes the purity, the consistency across all issues. But then you run into someone like I ran into today at a Mitt Romney event in Iowa, who said, yes, I agree with him on the economy, but on foreign policy, he's nuts. So, you know, you have that base that allows you to keep going, but the same passion that keeps that base also prevents you from growing into a full-scale challenger.

CROWLEY: Quickly, Alex. Win, lose or draw, Paul stays in?

CASTELLANOS: He stays in. But I think he's -- it's not looking good for him now.

He's not much of a Republican. On foreign policy and on social issues, he's a '60s Democrat.


BROWNSTEIN: His success in expanding the libertarian audience, though. This has been an historic campaign in that sense. He's probably presented the libertarian audience -- case to more Americans than any politician we've ever seen.

CROWLEY: Ron Brownstein, Alex Castellano, feel free to step inside and get warm.


CROWLEY: Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Looks a little chilly. I wonder if the weather's going to be a factor Tuesday night. We'll have more on that.

Tuesday's caucuses could dramatically shape the presidential race. Stay with us for a closer look at Iowa's record for picking presidents. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Six of the seven Republican presidential candidates who will spend the next 48 hours criss-crossing Iowa, making the case where they're the best choice of president for the United States. Iowa's caucuses can put virtual unknowns on the road to the White House, but other caucus winners ended up going nowhere, not even winning their party's nomination. Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is taking a closer look at all of this.

Jessica, you did a lot of research for this report. Tell us what you learned.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, history shows us that what matters in Iowa is not just who comes in first, but also who comes in second and third. That's because this state occupies a unique place in the nominating process.


YELLIN (voice-over): In Iowa, a win can thrust a candidate into the national spotlight.


YELLIN: While a loss can kill a campaign's momentum. Just ask Phil Graham.

PHIL GRAHAM: I want to congratulate the other candidates.

YELLIN: Or Howard Dean.

HOWARD DEAN: And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yes!

YELLIN: But in terms of picking a winner, whether it's the president or a party's nominee, the record for the Iowa caucuses is mixed. On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan lost here in 1980. So did George H.W. Bush in 1988. Eventual Republican nominee Bob Dole in 1996 and President George W. Bush in 2000 both claimed victories in the state. You may remember just eight years later, Mike Huckabee won the caucuses.

MIKE HUCKABEE: I love Iowa a whole lot.

YELLIN: But John McCain went on to become the GOP nominee. For the Democrats, the original Iowa upset went to Jimmy Carter in 1976 when the little known Georgia governor made a surprisingly strong finish here, launching his political rise to the White House.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We need to reorganize completely the executive branch of government.

YELLIN: In 1984, Walter Mondale went from Iowa caucus winner to Democratic party nominee. In 1988, Iowa Democrats chose Dick Gephardt over eventual nominee Michael Dukakis. And four years later, Bill Clinton was humbled with less than 3 percent of the caucus vote. Native son senator Tom Harkin won that year. Democratic nominee John Kerry won the caucuses in 2004.

JOHN KERRY: Thank you, Iowa, for making me the comeback Kerry.

YELLIN: And more recently, Senator Barack Obama staged a caucus upset that catapulted him to the front of the pack. Recall that Senator Hillary Clinton was considered all but a shoo-in until then.

MICHELE BACHMANN: Hi, this is Michele Bachmann calling.

YELLIN: What the Iowa caucuses are good at is winnowing down the field. The old saying is there are only three tickets out of Iowa.

GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD (R), IOWA: This is who comes in second, and who comes in third, as well as who comes in first. And if somebody else does surprisingly it could well launch their campaign. It's happened before.

YELLIN: Political upstarts have a chance here, because caucus goers really do, as they say, kick the tires.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:: What I want to know is if you get a Republican house and a Republican senate, in two years will you fulfill all those promises?


YELLIN: And Iowans take this work seriously, which is why the media and the country follows what happens here so closely.


YELLIN: And we'll look to see if this Republican field gets winnowed down after the caucuses here Tuesday night. Wolf?

BLITZER: And let's not forget after Tuesday night, Iowa still matters big time come November.

YELLIN: That's absolutely right, Wolf. The Obama campaign has made it very clear that they plan to fight to win Iowa in the general election. This is one of the battleground states that they plan to campaign for aggressively. Recall that George W. Bush won the state in 2004. Barack Obama won it in 2008. So it will be a battleground this time around, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin in Des Moines for us, thank you. Let's go over to John King at the magic wall once again. We'll get some clues, won't we, John, Tuesday night about November based on what happens then?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We will. Remember, 2006 and 2008, big Democratic years. We knew it early on in the early primaries. 2006 congressional primaries, 2008 Clinton/Obama race. We saw Democratic intensity in both of those years.

The question this time is can Republicans match in 2012 the intensity they had in 2010 when the Tea Party -- with the Tea Party so they took back the House of Representatives. And Wolf, one of the reasons we're so excited to get this campaign started is because this is the 2008 map. We know without a doubt it will be different this time.

Number one, we've had a census in 2010. So the electoral college votes are redistributed. Some states have a little more, some states have fewer. As Jess just noted, Barack Obama won Iowa, both campaigns. Democrats and any Republicans view it as a toss-up state. Then we go to New Hampshire and the Republican nominating process. Guess what? Barack Obama carried that state. It has been a swing state in presidential politics. Could well -- that's Vermont, excuse me. Could well be in play. Let me make that back loop.

So there's two of the first two states. South Carolina's next. That's reliably red. It will stay that way most likely. But Florida, let's put that back in the swing state.

Barack Obama turned these states, Virginia, North Carolina from red to blue last time. They're viewed as swing states. So is Indiana. So is Ohio. Let's come out here. Colorado, another Bush state in 2004. Obama 2008. It's considered in play. Nevada has the highest unemployment in the country. It's considered in play. There are more states. There are Republicans watching at home saying we might take Pennsylvania. There are Democrats saying no way, we do this, but just look at this hypothetical right here by this rules. And let's just play this out. What if the Republicans took Florida this time? Watch up here. You need 270 to win. And the Republicans take Ohio. The Republicans take back Indiana. Let's say Barack Obama keeps one of these two. So we'll give him Virginia. And we'll give the Republicans North Carolina. Give that one to Obama there. Now look at this. 260 to 253. Let's just for the sake of argument, this is a hyperthetical, give the Republicans back to Colorado. Look at that. We had a blow-out last time. We could have an election like this time.So let's assume because of the Latino vote, even with the high unemployment Barack Obama keeps -- the Democrats keep Nevada. 266 to 264. Let's just say for the sake of argument, maybe it's Governor Romney, he's from Massachusetts, or maybe any Republican wins the state of New Hampshire. 266 to 266. Could come down to Iowa. Look at that right there. What do you think of that? Now we could play this out any other way, but that's what makes this so interesting. An incumbent president with high unemployment. So one of the things Republicans are watching, this state could be so important this year. We'll turn out about 110, 115,000 people caucused in 2008.

Will it come up this time? And this state this little state, Wolf, goes that way or that way, could decide the election. Who knows?

BLITZER: Magic number, 270. That would be pretty amazing. We'll be doing a lot of this in the coming month, John. Thanks very much. Let's go back to Erin Burnett and Gloria Borger. They're at the CNN polling center right now. Iowa voters, we're getting some information on what they're thinking all along, aren't we, Erin?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are. And it's interesting when you look, obviously as John's talking about, you look at that state a bit when it comes to the national election, it could be a dead heat. It's going to be a real battleground state. But when it comes to the Republicans --


BURNETT: -- in that state, you've got a group, evangelical Christians, that are really important. So let's look at 2008 just to see what happened here. These are the entrance polls that we're looking at. And you can see how Mitt Romney faired back then when it came to evangelicals. Crushed by Mike Huckabee.

GLORIA BORGER CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Crushed by Mike huckabee. That was the key to Mike Huckabee's success, because evangelicals agreed on one candidate. That was Mike Huckabee. And that gave him the Iowa caucuses. It gave him his victory. Didn't give him the nomination as we pointed out tonight.


BORGER: But so important to his win and so important to Romney's loss. He cannot count on evangelicals this time around.

BURNETT: Now, OK. When you look at this, and one thing you can say if you look back at 2008, Mitt Romney did very well with people who didn't identify themselves as evangelicals --

BORGER: Exactly.

BURNETT: -- as indeed he appears to be doing this time around, but here is how he's doing.

BORGER: He's a Mormon. And remember that.


BORGER: He is a Mormon. That's a problem.

BURNETT: And maybe he has played -- is playing that a little bit differently this time.

BORGER: Well, I mean, take a look at this field. You see that the support of evangelical Christians, Santorum does very well.


BORGER: He's been endorsed by two leading evangelicals, but they don't have one horse this time. There is no Mike Huckabee. And that's good for Mitt Romney. So they're split. Santorum does very well. Paul, surprisingly, I think, does well with evangelicals. BURNETT: Yes.

BORGER: And that may be because of his economic message. Bachmann. Gingrich. Perry. But, again, that's the key to his success, and that's the way Romney wants it, split the evangelical vote this time.


BORGER: Good for Mitt Romney.

BURNETT: And interesting to see Ann Romney out. I saw that political interview talking about how she and her husband read scripture together. I mean, there's definitely been overtures in that direction.

BORGER: That's right.

BURNETT: One thing I wanted to ask you, though, looking at last time around from the CNN data we have --


BURNETT: -- 60 percent of Republican voters in Iowa identified themselves as born again Christians or evangelicals.

BORGER: In 2008.

BURNETT: In 2008.

BORGER: Right.

BURNETT: But you've been talking about how that --

BORGER: Right.

BURNETT: -- seems to have dramatically changed.

BORGER: Well, it has. And "The Des Moines Register" poll today, it was interesting to me was if you look at the internal numbers, only 34 percent are self-identified evangelicals. So that's half as much. Whether that's accurate or not remains to be seen. Whether more turn out remains to be seen, but quite a different number from 2008.

BURNETT: Something pretty stunning. I'm sure Ron Brownstein will be looking into it. All right, well, back to you.

BLITZER: Erin, Gloria, guys, thanks very much.We still have a lot more to cover on this important night. Quite a few Iowa Republicans say they could still change their minds before the caucuses Tuesday night. We're going to talk about how this volatile race could turn, one last time, when the voting begins.


BLITZER: Let's talk about the Santorum surge right now, Erick Erickson. The rest of our excellent panel is here. Erick, you heard the interview with Rick Santorum. Did he convince you that he's the guy?

ERICK ERICKSON: He's a nice guy, but no, I mean, just -- he hasn't been in elected office since 2006. He was a senator, he wasn't an executive. He hasn't been in the private sector creating jobs. I mean, between Mitt Romney and Santorum, at least Mitt Romney does have that he was creating jobs. Now Santorum's right, though. The reason he was creating jobs was because he couldn't get elected.

BLITZER: Why is he surging right now, Roland?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you talk about social conservatives. But most importantly, this is a guy who focused on one state. He wasn't trying to go around to four or five, six different states. He was all about boots on the ground. He's obviously been talking to -- you know, targeting social conservatives, but he did it the old-fashioned way. From day one, he said it's Iowa or bust. And it's paying off.

BLITZER: Because certainly, Gloria, he didn't have a whole lot of money. And it's fascinating, as you point out --

BORGER: I'm not sure he does even now.

BLITZER: Yes, he doesn't have a whole lot of money right now --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: -- but he might if he does well in Iowa.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: All of a sudden, that money could appear. But 41 percent according to "The Des Moines Register" poll say people are still persuadable. They might change their minds going into the caucuses.

BORGER: That's right. You know, as I was saying with Erin earlier, this isn't like you go into a booth and just pull a lever and say, OK, fine. You actually listen to people talk about their candidates. The important thing about organization is that Rick Santorum if he has a good organization, will have people speaking on his behalf at these caucuses. And it could make a difference. Another important thing for him is those endorsements of two leading evangelicals. There's no single evangelical candidate, but these two people carry a lot of weight in the state. And I think that'll be important.

BLITZER: I think, John, he also learned the Gingrich lesson that if you're going to be bombarded with negative attacks, you better respond.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, and he surged at the right time. Before a real onslaught --

BORGER: Right.

AVLON: -- of negative ads could take him out. That's exactly right. Look, you know, caucuses are high intensity, low turnout elections fundamentally. And the fact that Rick Santorum has been able to sort of have a boom right now, it really answers one of the open questions of this election. Do retail politics still matter? Because for a long time, we saw candidates surging in the polls in Iowa, who weren't putting in the time that Rick Santorum had with 99 counties.

KING: The debates, the debates dominated this election. And once the debates ended, Iowa went back to its traditional DNA with a few caveats. But I'd add one other point to Senator Santorum. Having been out to Iowa several times to watch him campaign, it'll be interesting to see if he can sustain this. Because as you know --

BORGER: Right.

KING: -- in the interview, he has a political history. Rick Perry's already attacking him now for earmarks, saying oh, you're just another politician. But look at the candidates who have risen. Ron Paul, Herman Cain before him. Now Rick Santorum. Authenticity. The other guys are politicians, both Gingrich and Romney. You can call flip- floppers. You can take on things in their records. The candidates who seem to believe what they say vote in what their belief.

BLITZER: And Rick?

KING: Santorum has gained ground with people who think he's a credible, authentic candidate.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to what Santorum said. Listen to this clip.


RICK SANTORUM, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With respect to the issue about -- I get a kick out of this with Governor Romney. I mean, Newt said this at the debate. I mean, Governor Romney, he's not like he's tried to be a career politician. He's just not been successful.


BLITZER: Still pretty polite, the exchanges --


BLITZER: -- between Romney and Santorum.

ERICKSON: So far. The heat hasn't turned up yet. If he comes out of Iowa and, you know, given the sampling of evangelicals of "The Des Moines Register", well, he can do even better than where he is in that poll. And if he bounces into New Hampshire, it's going to be on -- Romney's got to do well in New Hampshire. They haven't managed expectations well for New Hampshire. The polling has shown he doesn't need to manage expectations. Well, if that changes, there's going to be a lot to come after --

AVLON: There hasn't been a lot of time to do the opposition research on Santorum.

BLITZER: Gloria?

AVLON: -- because people haven't thought about it.

BORGER: We haven't seen Rick Santorum in the hot seat at a debate yet. There hasn't been one. We haven't really seen Ron Paul as frontrunner in the hot seat at a debate. We'll be able to do that in New Hampshire. And we'll see how they perform. And we'll see how the dynamic is among the candidates.

BLITZER: And don't forget, we have a CNN debate January 19th in Charleston, South Carolina.

John, listen to Governor Romney because you wrote an excellent piece the other day talking about pop culture and these candidates. All of a sudden, he is saying this.


ROMNEY: The gap between his promises and his performance is the largest I've seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of till death do we part.


BLITZER: He was talking about President Obama. Go ahead, John Avlon.

AVLON: Well, somewhere there's a joke writer who feels good about himself today. I mean, whenever Mitt Romney starts quoting pop culture, I do get a little suspect.

MARTIN: Yes, run.

AVLON: I mean, cause you know --

BLITZER: The other day when I interviewed him he was talking about "I Love Lucy" and "Laurel and Hardy."


MARTIN: Please come to color television.

AVLON: Well, that's right. His pop culture references tend to be black and white slapstick before he was born which was the point of the piece I was making.

KING: Iowa is an old state. That may work.

AVLON: You know, it could work for him. You know, the most devastating line today, when doing the live feeds and Newt Gingrich was lancing into Mitt Romney, really pushing back, great line where he said, look, the person who will lie to you to become president will lie to you when he is president. And that's going to be one of the kind of onslaughts we're seeing. I mean, this desperate pushback to try to get Romney off the --

MARTIN: I get that, but Newt really should talk about lying. I'm just saying.

KING: If Romney wins, or is a strong second to Ron Paul in Iowa, the Republican party, the other candidates are going to face a huge choice.


KING: In an election of which you have a chance to beat a Democratic incumbent and you're going into Mitt Romney's strongest state, how nasty will the campaign get? How determined will you be to take him out? Or do you say we needed to get him in Iowa, we didn't get him. We need to pull back.

BORGER: Well, that's Huntsman's job.


BORGER: He'll try and take Romney down.

BLITZER: John, guys, thanks very much. We'll talk about Huntsman in New Hampshire. Iowa is just the beginning. A look ahead at a very, very busy few weeks for the Republican presidential candidates and for all of us as well.


BLITZER: The Iowa caucus is Tuesday night. Kick off a very busy month in the Republican presidential campaign. One week later, the lead-off primary of the year in New Hampshire on January 10th. Then the race moves south. Join us for the southern Republican presidential debate on January 19th, followed by the first southern contest in South Carolina January 21st. Next, it's Florida for the Florida Republican presidential debate January 26th. It's the scene setter for the Florida primary five days later on January 31st.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in the CNN election center. Stay with CNN for the latest on the presidential race. Our coverage of the Iowa caucuses begins Tuesday night, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.