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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Interview with Jon Huntsman; Courting The Evangelicals; Interview With Matthew Schultz; Political Analysts Examine Iowa Caucuses Race; Iowa Voters Wants Cuts; Finishing 3rd in Iowa -- What Does it Get You?

Aired January 2, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

We're coming to you live from the Waveland Cafe. I'm Soledad O'Brien. And you're watching the first edition of our new show, which is called STARTING POINT.

We're in Des Moines, Iowa. The Waveland Cafe is where we have decided to launch our show, and a place where political folks who are interested of talking about the issues come to talk. Here, we're going to be looking at the big stories, give you some details, inside information you can't get anywhere else -- only a worldwide news organization like CNN can bring to you.

We're also going to be talking to the leaders, and the news makers, and also real folks, challenging some of the conventional takes of the issues of the day.

Nice to have you with us.

Our STARTING POINT this morning, though, one Republican who is missing -- what is happening here in Iowa, Jon Huntsman. He is spending his time in New Hampshire this morning, while his rivals are stumping in the Hawkeye State.

He says Iowa is for picking corn, and New Hampshire picks presidents. That's a little bit snarky.

Jon Huntsman is going to join us live on STARTING POINT. That's ahead.

First, though, let's take a look at some of the headlines.

There's one day left and one word could hold the key to outcome of the Iowa GOP caucuses. And that word is "uncertain." Lots of people here at the Hawkeye State still are not sold on a particular candidate. We're going to ask the question why.

According to evangelicals, their vote was crucial in 2008 Republican race. But could courting them in Iowa actually, eventually end up costing the candidates nationally? We'll take a look at that as well.

And Iowa voters agreed this election is about the economy and cutting spending. One place they're looking to cut if Iowans have their way would be the Department of Education. It could be history. We'll take a look at what that really could mean.

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

From the Waveland Cafe -- it is a local hot spot in Des Moines, a diner known for being a top political pit stop. And, of course, they have a specialty here, called the "everything's hash brown," which literally is everything you can think of in a hash brown, including two kinds of cheese. So, not very healthy, only 10 million calories, but it's a great place to eat.

Every other candidate is in Iowa this morning, but there's one who's missing from the Hawkeye State. It's Governor Jon Huntsman, who is about 1,200 miles away this morning. He's campaigning in New Hampshire. Why?

Listen to what he told CBS News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON HUNTSMAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They pick corn in Iowa. They actually pick presidents here in New Hampshire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: A little snarky, huh? Well, has that strategy ever paid off? It kind of reminds us of Rudy Giuliani back in 2008, who put all his eggs in the basket that was Florida. He spent his time and over $3 million in advertising in the Sunshine State, a state that was supposed to be Rudy country. But by the time the primary actually got around to January 29th in Florida, John McCain and Mitt Romney were riding the wave of headlines from the earlier primary states and crushed Giuliani, who then placed third with just 15 percent of the vote.

So, joining us this morning to talk about all of that, we're going to ask the question, is Huntsman missing momentum building opportunity by skipping Iowa? Or could he pull off a shocker in New Hampshire?

The governor of the Hawkeye State says the former Utah's governor's strategy is misguided. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD (R), IOWA: He messed up big time. He skipped Iowa. And the result is, he is going to be -- he is an asterisk and he's never going to get beyond that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Candy Crowley talking to him.

So let's speak right now with Jon Huntsman, who's joining us live from Manchester, New Hampshire.

Good morning. Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for being with us.

HUNTSMAN: Hey, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Have there been a moment -- hey -- have you regretted the decision you have made to skip this state and just go straight to New Hampshire, sir?

HUNTSMAN: No regrets, Soledad. You got -- you got to lay out your assets and your resources and states where you think you can do best. And listen, the rap on me is that Huntsman guy, he can go on and he can win the general election. Can he do well in some of the early primary states?

This is a state to be sure that likes to reward underdogs. I'm an underdog in this race. And if you get out and work hard, this is a level playing field where you got Republicans, you got independents, and maybe a few Democrats turn out in the primary. And it is a primary.

And I think if you work it hard and if you have a message as I do, and if you are willing to do 140, 150 public events and town hall meetings as I have done in this state, then I think you're rewarded for that. So, we're going to let the people turn out and vote in about a week and see what it all means.

But I feel pretty good about having come from the margin of error. We came into this state as a complete asterisk, at zero, and now we are bumping into the teens. And I have to tell you, with the topsy-turvy and unpredictable nature of the race so far, I think we are positioned pretty well, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: But, you know, talking about an asterisk, you just heard what the governor said, the Iowa governor said about you. No one here is talking about you. I mean, literally, it might just be me this morning.

Doesn't that hurt you ultimately?

HUNTSMAN: Well, that's about to change in about 48 hours. And then the big bright light will be here on New Hampshire.

And in true fashion, New Hampshire always tends to upend conventional wisdom. The pundit class, they always come into New Hampshire, always predicting who's going to be up and who's down.

This is a state that does not like to be told for whom to vote. They don't want the establishment coronating or teeing up somebody that they feel they have to vote for. They want the candidates to earn it.

So we're proving the point I think in real time here that politics and successful politics must be earned on the ground. You've got to have a message.

And I am passionate about my message. And I think that is what's going to drive us to success here.

We've got two deficits we have to deal with in this country for the most important election of my generation. We have an economic deficit that is a cancer that is eating this country alive. And we have a trust deficit in this country. Our people no longer trust our institutions of power, and no longer trust our politicians.

And I say, if we can't get our arms around both of these deficits and do it fast, this country is in real trouble.

O'BRIEN: You have offered to match any donation that comes into your campaign between now and Wednesday. Do you ever think about all the air time that you would be getting with that kind of a proposal, if you were here?

HUNTSMAN: Listen, we have been getting pretty good air time here in New Hampshire. And again, I think a day or two following Iowa, all eyes are going to be on New Hampshire. And all next week, the work that we have done here in New Hampshire I think is going to pay off. And then the people of New Hampshire are going to cast a vote.

And an interesting thing is going to happen when they cast a vote in a week. They're going to look at that ballot box. And all the drama and all the theater of the preseason is going to be behind them.

And they're going to look at that ballot box and they're going to say, I actually have to cast a vote for somebody who can be president of the United States of America. There aren't a whole lot of people remaining who can actually be president of the United States of America. They're going to look at that ballot box and say -- who has the temperament, the background as a real job creator with real international experience, who's able to bring people together during a deeply divided time in our nation's history, who has a vision that can actually strike out and deal with the economic deficit and the trust deficit that are so real in this country.

And that's when I believe that the people here in New Hampshire are going to render a very sensible judgment, which will likely transform the landscape of this race as we have seen in years past.

O'BRIEN: All right. Governor Huntsman, nice to chat with you this morning. I'm sure we'll be talking again in New Hampshire, when we all move there.

HUNTSMAN: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate your time.

HUNTSMAN: Happy New Year to you. And congratulations on your new program.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Oh, thank you. I appreciate that, sir.

We'll talk more about New Hampshire, the strategy, and the wisdom of ignoring Iowa. We've got our CNN's chief national correspondent -- I guess John King isn't here. He'll be live for us in remote, we'll check in with him. Oh, there you are, John. I can see you there. He is in Atlanta for us.

Here in Des Moines, our CNN chief political correspondent, also, of course, of "STATE OF THE UNION," it's Candy Crowley. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos is with us. Iowa radio Simon Conway is back. He's interviewed everybody but had not interviewed Huntsman.

So when you hear what he says, which is, listen, I got to figure out where to put my money, makes sense to me to be there. You know, they love an underdog but it probably wouldn't be me. That sounds very reasonable.

SIMON CONWAY, INTERVIEWEED ALL CANDIDATES EXCEPT FOR JON HUNTSMAN: I was itching to ask him a question, because now he has insulted our state twice, not just once. He called us a pre-season. And I really just wanted to know how many other states he didn't want to be president of. Clearly, he doesn't want to be president here in Iowa.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: But isn't he being strategically intelligent about where to put his money and time where with his position on ethanol subsidies, with his position on other issues, he just would not do well?

CONWAY: I completely understand that. And that's one thing. That's strategy. That's fine.

There's no need to go the extra mile and issue insults to the statement of the state of Iowa and the people who live here. I think it's actually -- if the man was to be president, that was about as unpresidential as it gets.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: You know, the problem with the strategy too -- look, it's only a week. It's not Florida that's a month later, what Rudy Giuliani did, which he faded from the scene completely from the debate.

It's only a week. But imagine what happens after Tuesday night. Romney gets a bump coming out of here because he's going to finish in the top one or two. Santorum is going to get a bump and a ride momentum because he's going to over-perform here.

For the next two or three days, what's the story going to be in the national media? It's not going to be Huntsman. So, he's really cut his campaign down to two or three days next week.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Sometimes the candidate sets the strategy, and sometimes, you know, the strategy drives the candidate. And this -- this is a guy who looked at the playing field. He wasn't -- the only thing worse than him not playing in Iowa was for him to play in Iowa and come in dead last.

So, you know, he said, look, he started out in Florida and said, I'm not doing that well. It's like (INAUDIBLE), a game of risk. You put all your armies in one place and you rule the dice.

And that's what he's doing. I mean, just don't think that there was -- he couldn't set the strategy. It was set for him.

O'BRIEN: So, let me ask John King a question. What does it say that a guy whose economic plan has been praised by the "Wall Street Journal," they said like it's as impressive as any to date, better than what we have seen from the other front-runner -- which is pretty much a big old kiss from the "Wall Street Journal," is not here because he literally thinks he cannot do well in this state.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Candy just made an important point. Sometimes the strategy picks the candidate. Sometimes the candidate picks the strategy. Sometimes the campaign team has a lot of influence on the candidate.

And if you look at the top tier of the Huntsman campaign, it's the old McCain campaign, and they don't like Iowa. They don't trust Iowa. They didn't want him to get caught in the evangelical trap that they view as Iowa. So, they put him in New Hampshire.

But, Soledad, they may have miscalculation. Their calculation was that Romney would stumble in Iowa again, that Iowa would again hurt Mitt Romney going into the state where he would have the most strength in New Hampshire.

If Alex is right and the polls are right and Romney comes out of Iowa solid with a bounce, you may have a giant, galactically miscalculation on the part of the Huntsman people.

However, their calculation is this: the conservative base of the party will still look for an alternative to Mitt Romney after Iowa, even if Iowa embraces Mitt Romney, even if New Hampshire begins to embrace Mitt Romney, that some conservative challenger must emerge and that he is not knicked up like the Newt Gingriches, like the Rick Perrys. That's their calculation. It is a longer than long shot, but that's their hope.

CASTELLANOS: And that's one of the problems for Huntsman, John. I think you're right about that Huntsman also had a strategic problem in that he -- we never quite figured out which playoff game he wanted to play in. Is he competing for the anti-Romney conservatives? He is a conservative governor from Utah. Is he competing to be the Romney space in New Hampshire?

Sometimes being everything to everyone is the same thing as being nothing to everyone.

CROWLEY: Well, and his primary presentation was I'm a guy, I'm a moderate that can get along with people. Yes, I was the president's pick for ambassador to China. That means I can get along with people -- in a primary where they really don't want to get along with Democrats.

So, he was -- you know, wrong guy, wrong time, certainly in Iowa. Not looking that great in New Hampshire. But I just don't think there was any other place for him to go. This has to be his -- where he rolls the dice.

O'BRIEN: I'm going to ask to you stick around, and we'll bring in a conversation about these folks who are these last-minute deciders really connected to the volatility I think of the race. Look at that sign, sign, sign, everywhere a signs.

That certainly has been the case four years ago in Iowa during the run-up to the 2008 caucus, where people were showing their support for a candidate with the front yard sign -- as you can see here in this shot. We got John Edwards, Hillary Clinton.

This caucus season, though, the landscape looks a lot different. The "Des Moines Register" poll, at least this poll on Sunday -- Saturday, rather, shows 41 percent of likely caucusgoers might still change their mind, which could explain maybe the lack of signs.

Take a look at this neighborhood in West Des Moines. Three weeks ago, the only thing on display in this neighborhood is a wreath. No signs. We thought for sure we'd see a couple of signs, campaign signs at least somewhere.

But look at this. Nothing. Nothing, nothing. And it actually is something that lots of locals in Iowa will talk about. Just days before the caucus, there are not that many signs, which is not unusual from what we've seen in our travels around Iowa.

Which is why when we spotted this sign, 21 signs for Rick Santorum, we thought we had to stop. The homeowner is a guy named Pete Quinn. He says he was the first in his West Des Moines neighborhood to throw support behind a candidate. That was two months ago. And he expected his neighbors to follow suit.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETE QUINN, SANTORUM SUPPORTER: It really surprised me, because, you know, I know that Iowans take their caucus process very seriously. And it's great. It's, you know, civil responsibility and it's the American exceptionalism and all of that.

So I was really looking forward to it. I'm kind of like, hmm, I guess I seem to be an island in the drift.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Island in the drift. That's such a bad, bad thing when you're talking about the day before an election potentially.

Why is he, Candy Crowley, the island in the drift?

CROWLEY: Ordinarily, if I saw a poll with this high a number of undecideds close to a normal election, is what we say, not a caucus, I would say this is baloney. These are people saying, oh, I'm keeping my mind open, but really they've already decided.

Here is the deal about these caucuses. People are with their neighbors basically. They know the people inside these caucuses, many of them. So, when your neighbor gets up and says, I have 21 Rick Santorum signs and I want to talk to you about Rick Santorum, you're listening to him. So, maybe you went in thinking, but Mitt Romney is the only one you can win.

And the neighbor says just that right sentence. You know him. He is an honest guy. You really can persuade people inside caucuses in a way the undecided vote doesn't mean that much in an untraditional election. I think in a caucus, it really does mean they are persuadable.

CASTELLANOS: One of the things, when you're in a campaign as a political professional and you see numbers like this, 41 percent of the people undecided this late, sometimes, people telling you they're undecided doesn't mean they're undecided.

It means they are passionless. They haven't fallen in love with anyone. It means low turnout. It means they may not show up to vote. So --

O'BRIEN: And yet all the expectations that we're hearing are that this is actually going to be a high turnout caucus. I mean, we're we looking at 118,000, I think, four years ago. And now, some predictions I've seen have gone high as 150. So, if it's a lack of passion, why with those numbers?

SIMON CONWAY, TALK RADIO CONSERVATIVE: My question will be, what's changed since the straw poll? I mean, the straw poll was huge. A massive turnout. People were actually turning up at the gates of the straw poll and paying money to get in. This is unheard of.

CROWLEY: I'm going to tell you what I think is happening. I think when you look at -- when you look at the personal attributes that people apply to these candidates, where does Mitt Romney sell, electability? And Iowans are, by nature, they want to vote their heart. "I really like that Rick Santorum. He believes what I believe. I want him to be president."

On the other hand, this is a party that's been out of office for four years. And more than their head says to them we need the guy that can actually beat President Obama. So, I think there's a struggle going on between my heart is with this guy, but my head tells me Mitt Romney.

CASTELLANOS: I think so too. And you know, you can have great passion but not a lot of bread. Campaigns like George McGovern's campaign and Barry Goldwater's had a lot of intensity. People showed up at straw polls, but turnout was low. They're small but powerful. We may see that here.

O'BRIEN: It will depend on the evangelical, I think, as well, which is what we're coding (ph) next. According to evangelical vote in Iowa was huge as you remember back in 2008. This year's GOP field is working very hard for the evangelical vote again, and some people say maybe even too hard. We'll take look at that. Back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're looking at pictures of the Waveland Cafe, which is where we're hanging out having breakfast with the locals this morning. The 2012 GOP candidates have been working overtime to try to court the evangelical vote, and for very good reason. Back in 2008, you remember, evangelicals accounted for 60 percent of Republican caucus goers, and it catapulted mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, to a first place finish in Iowa.

But the latest Des Moines Register Poll found that only one in three caucus goers this time around will be evangelical Christians. That's kind of a far cry from the 60 percent turnout back in 2008. Let's talk about that with Jennifer Bowen. She's the executive director of Iowa Right to Life. Also Bob Vander Plaatts, he's the president and CEO of The Family Leader. Nice to have you both.

Jennifer, let's start with you. What do you think distinguishes these candidates right now on their position on abortion?

JENNIFER BOWEN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, IOWA RIGHT TO LIFE: They are absolute champions. Several of them are absolute champions on the issue of life. They speak the language. They know what's important. And they're just -- they --

O'BRIEN: And you feel like they're speaking with conviction when they talk about --

BOWEN: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: So, how come no endorsement from you? I would imagine that could really help a struggling campaign.

BOWEN: It could, but we've discovered that it's absolutely beneficial to them as well, because we haven't ruled anybody out. So, we're in support of pro-life candidates. We're able to speak on behalf of all of them that are pro-life. And so, we haven't ruled anybody out.

O'BRIEN: When you gave your endorsement, your personal endorsement, of Rick Santorum, you sent him skyrocketing up -- you did. I mean, you can laugh, but you did. And yet, The Family Leader, your organization, hasn't been able to endorse someone. How should we read that? Why not?

BOB VANDER PLAATTS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, THE FAMILY LEADER: Well, a couple of things. First of all, we're working on Jennifer's endorsement of Rick Santorum yet as well. But, the family leader decided that they are a standard bearer, not a king maker. But our board was unanimous in their support of Rick Santorum.

But they said let's have Bob Vander Plaats (INAUDIBLE) individuals and let them personally endorse them and that would be kind of keep our organization at bay. We have thousands of --

O'BRIEN: So, why would you want to do that? I mean, why keep an organization at bay when you can say, listen, everybody on our board likes Rick Santorum.

VANDER PLAATTS: Well, basically, we have done that, but the organization, we have thousands of supporters of The Family Leader. Not all of them are going to say we love Rick Santorum.

So, we said, OK, we're going to be a standard bearer in regards to issues, but we're going to also go out and endorse Rick Santorum as individuals, and I think we're glad to do it, and hopefully, it's benefiting Rick Santorum as well.

O'BRIEN: So, is that an indication that, really, the social issues have really split?

VANDER PLAATTS: Absolutely --

O'BRIEN: I mean, if you're worried alienating some people who are --

VANDER PLAATTS: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I've seen more positive things happen in this campaign for the pro-family movement, from pro-life movement, with these candidates in a year that was supposed to be dominated by the economy, which is a family issue. We've seen the life issue advance, the marriage issue advance, the appointment of justice advance, a lot of good conservative --

O'BRIEN: Why are we going to see so many fewer evangelical Christians coming out? I mean, again, this is all, of course, estimates because the thing hasn't happened yet. We'll know tomorrow, but the estimates look like instead of 60 percent coming to rally behind Mike Huckabee back in 2008, it might be like more 30 percent to 40 percent. Why the drop? That's a pretty steep drop.

BOWEN: I don't know that that's what we're going to see. From the indications that we -- I've talked to people literally across the state from city to city, and I don't think that we're going to see a drop. I think that we have people that are angry about what's going on in our country. I think that we have people that are passionate. And I think that we're going to see an incredible turnout tomorrow night.

VANDER PLAATTS: The people of faith are still going to have an incredible influence on this caucus. Four years ago, you had Mike Huckabee, a former governor and Baptist minister. I think what's going on here is the evangelical Christians are tired of being tagged as evangelical Christians. They're true conservatives. They're concerned about the economy. They're concerned about national policy.

O'BRIEN: But who are much more interested in social issues as well, whereas some people are really focused on economic conservatism may not have the same feelings.

VANDER PLAATTS: I think what it is is that people are trying to fragment people, and they're getting tired of the tags. Are you a Tea Party conservative? Are you an evangelical conservative? Are you a fiscal conservative? They're saying, wait a minute. I'm a conservative, and we're tired of all this fragmentation, because either you're a genuine conservative or you're not.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to continue to talk a little bit about evangelicals and also Mormons as well when, after the break, we speak to the Iowa secretary of state, Matthew Schultz. He's endorsed Rick Santorum. He's a Mormon. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Matthew Modine decided to stay for breakfast. There he is, enjoying with us, in the Waveland Cafe where they're serving up breakfast for everybody. Welcome back, everybody, the STARTING POINT.

Mitt Romney has seen some positive movement in the recent Iowa polls. Changes in his schedule are showing a little bit of confidence on his part. In the past, though, his Mormon faith has proved to be a hurdle for some voters. And while many Iowans simply do not consider religion at all in voting, the fact remains that many do.

And the ones who do have a powerful organization. Joining us to talk about that is Iowa's secretary of state. His name is Matthew Schultz. He's endorsed Santorum in this race, also happens to be a Mormon. Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for being with us.

MATTHEW SCHULTZ, IOWA'S SECRETARY OF STATE: Nice to see you, too.

O'BRIEN: You endorsed Mitt Romney back in 2008. This time around is Rick Santorum. Why?

SCHULTZ: Well, in 2008, just like now, I took the time to look at every candidate, meet them, and see what they stood for. And, you know, this time, there are different issues, different people. And I felt like Rick --

O'BRIEN: But in this case, he's the same person.

SCHULTZ: He is, but Rick Santorum wasn't in the race four years ago, and things have changed in our country. And I was really looking for somebody, a really strong conservative who also didn't shy away from family values. And those things are important to me.

O'BRIEN: Do you think that Mitt Romney's religion is an issue and going to continue to be an issue in this race?

SCHULTZ: You know, who knows? I think that at least in Iowa, I don't think it is an issue. I was elected in a very competitive primary being a Mormon. And I think Iowans look at issues and look what people stand for, look at their track record, and they judge them accordingly. There are always people who are going to judge people based on race, religion, and creed.

But I think there's a very, very small minority. I don't think it will have an impact. I think they're really looking at the individual.

O'BRIEN: You talk about small percentage. The percentage of Mormons in the state is very, very small. Was your religion as a Mormon an issue in any way, shape, or form during your election?

SCHULTZ: You know, it wasn't something that was talked about that much. But certainly, people asked me questions about it. So, in terms of whether there was interest around it, yes, people asked questions, but it wasn't a campaign theme.

O'BRIEN: What happens if the man that you're backing, Rick Santorum, doesn't even make it into the top three?

SCHULTZ: That's not going to happen.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Hypothetically, go out on a limb with me, what if it does?

SCHULTZ: You know, we'll see. I think he'll outperform expectations. I think he's going to finish in the top three. It's just a question of where. And if he doesn't, then everybody will reevaluate. But I think even if he finishes third, Rick Santorum is the story of Tuesday.

O'BRIEN: Matthew Schultz, it's nice to have you. Thanks for talking with us. We'll see if that's the case come Tuesday night, Wednesday morning.

Still to come this morning, the first test of the 2012 election season is just a day away. Polls are showing that Mitt Romney is ahead in Iowa, but can he really hold on to that lead? We'll check in with a Romney supporter, Congressman Aaron Schock.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien, and you're watching my new show, which is called STARTING POINT. We are live this morning at the Waveland Cafe in Des Moines, Iowa.

Coming up in the next half hour, it is caucus eve here in this state. Voters here can't take a step without hearing a campaign pitch. And close to half of likely voters say they are still thinking about changing their minds. Republican candidates are promising to close the federal department of education, an idea that many voters here in Iowa like. We'll talk about what's at risk there. And something presidential candidates as far back as Ronald Reagan have wanted to do, close the DOE. But what could happen to kids who rely on the billions of dollars that the DOE hands out? We'll take a look at that.

We begin, though, with the tightening race here in Iowa. The latest poll out of Iowa shows that Mitt Romney is on top, but Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are in striking distance, so it's still anyone's game, especially when one poll found that nearly 40 percent of the caucus goers say they could actually be swayed to vote for another candidate. That statistic includes Iowa Congressman Steve king. I spoke to him in our last hour. He is still weighing his endorsement. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE KING, (R) IOWA: It would have been really nice if I could have woken up this morning and I would have had that epiphany and I would have been able to make that endorsement. I said it has to be a conviction, and unless until a conviction comes, I'm not going to be able to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Well, there's one man who has made his choice, Congressman Aaron Schock. He spent some time on the campaign trail with Mitt Romney, and he joins us now. Nice to have you.

REP. AARON SCHOCK, (R) ILLINOIS: Good morning, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Good morning to you. So Mitt Romney came in second place back in 2008. He won 11 primaries before he lost to John McCain, Shouldn't this now, four years later, with a good organization in place, be a walk for him? And it's not been?

SCHOCK: Well, absolutely not. We have got a field of very good candidates. And Mitt really has -- Governor Romney has really put together a national campaign. What distinguishes him in addition to his qualifications to be the candidate and ultimately to be the next president of the United States is his qualifications in campaign organization.

If you look at all the candidates who are running on our side of the aisle, there's no one that has the fundraising prowess or the organization in every state, not just the first or second one, to take it all the way, to win the nomination, and ultimately has the organization to beat President Obama.

What you're seeing with the CNN poll last week, Soledad, it was interesting. I was actually on the bus with mitt last week when the CNN poll came out. And it was the first poll in the nation that showed Mitt Romney leading the pack for the first time in Iowa this year. And so that was less than a week ago. And now the political pundits are saying, gee, you know, what if he doesn't win Iowa and so on.

Mitt Romney is doing extremely well in that state. That state -- the state of Iowa has had more candidates in the state meeting and greeting its voters for the better part of this year. And as you pointed out earlier, Iowans are now for the first time making up their mind on who they are voting for, and that is proving to be very well for Mitt Romney in these final few days.

O'BRIEN: What's a win for him and what's a loss for him? If Rick Santorum beats him here in Iowa tomorrow night, is that a big loss?

SCHOCK: Well, absolutely not. Look, Mitt Romney wants to win in every state in the country. Mitt Romney doesn't have to win in every state in the country. As I mentioned earlier, he's got an organization that is doing extremely well in every one of these states. He's significantly ahead in the state of New Hampshire. He wasn't expected a week ago to win Iowa. Now he is number one in the polls. If he comes in number one or number two in the top three, that will be a strong showing for Mitt Romney and he will go on and do very well in New Hampshire.

O'BRIEN: Representative Aaron Schock is a Republican from Illinois. Nice to have you, sir. Thank you for talking with us. We appreciate it.

Let's get right back to our political panel. We have CNN's chief national correspondent John King, CNN's chief political correspondent, host of "STATE OF THE UNION" Candy Crowley joining us as well. We've got Ron Brownstein back. He's a senior political analyst and editorial director of "The National." Your titles are all getting way too long. Alex Castellanos is joining us as well, he's a CNN contributor and a Republican consultant.

So he said something interesting, right? He is sort of gloating about how his candidate is now the front-runner, but first, second, or third will be fine. Is that a contradictory statement? Candy, why don't you start?

CROWLEY: It depends on who he is third to. If he is third to Rick Santorum, if he is third to Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, that's OK, because they don't think they are viable. That's OK with Mitt Romney, because they don't knowledge that either Santorum or Ron Paul have the wherewithal to move much beyond Iowa. They'll be there, but they are living off the land and all that kind of stuff. And I think who can't they lose to? Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry who both can raise money pretty quickly.

BROWSTEIN: I feel like we are watching something like a 2010 when Harry Reid and his allies picked their opponent. They wanted Sharron Angle. The Mitt Romney forces here have gone after Newt Gingrich heavily on television. He certainly attacks Rick Perry heavily in his argument. They haven't really raised a glove at Ron Paul or Rick Santorum for the same reasons. They are much more comfortable with a race that goes forward out of here with Santorum and Paul elevated and Gingrich and Perry suppressed. Now, Santorum probably has a potential to grow into a broader threat than Paul. But it is still a big climb for Santorum to go from where he is nationally, five percent, to really emerge as a full-scale national challenger.

O'BRIEN: John King, what's Mitt Romney doing right? One of the things that we heard was that he sort of held back from that first place, right? He has tried to stay out of the limelight a little bit, I guess, as a protection measure. But what has he done lately right that is helping him have this lead in the polls? It is just hitting Gingrich hard, that strike first before others strike you kind of thing?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is gravity, which is what goes up in this Republican primary or caucus has gone down, whether it was Rick Perry who went up, Herman Cain went up, Newt Gingrich went up, they have all come down. Mitt Romney has been sort of steady. He has grown a bit.

Part of it is, Soledad, he was humiliated four years ago. He spent $10 million in Iowa, lost to Mike Huckabee, and then he collapsed in New Hampshire. The benefit this time is that he has that network in Iowa. So he came in late, but he does have a network on the ground.

The question is, can he win? And as you make that point, if he came in third, the question is not Paul and Santorum are considered nationally viable. But if he came in third, would that shock New Hampshire? Back to the Huntsman conversation we were having earlier. Would the people of New Hampshire say, not again, and would it rejigger the polling in New Hampshire. That's the one concern for Mitt Romney if you fall into third place.

However, Santorum for me is the biggest issue and the biggest question right now. I was talking to Iowa people this morning who said don't pigeonhole him as the evangelical candidate. He is beginning to grow in the suburbs. So watch today. It's the last day for anyone to do. Start talking to Iowa Republicans. Are they getting robo-calls from the Romney campaign, the Gingrich campaign, the Perry campaign, attacking Santorum and attacking Romney? Those are the things to look for in the final 24 hours as everybody tries to take the guys on the top down a couple of notches.

CASTELLANOS: I think John King just nailed it, the big story coming out of here, and that could worry the Romney people. And that does Santorum become bigger than he is now?

Michele Bachmann, straw poll wins, doesn't use that night, that great moment on the national stage, to go to the next level, to say, hey, here's what I can do about the economy. If Rick Santorum -- the most important 10 minutes of his life will be Tuesday night. If he just remains an evangelical conservative and he starts talking about South Carolina and lets the media trap him into debating social issues, he's cooked. If he says, I'm going to New Hampshire, I want to talk about the economy, the single most important issue in this country, I want to talk about manufacturing in Pittsburgh and how to get this thing going again, he can grow from here. He's got 10 minutes to do it Tuesday night. And it means everything to him.

CROWLEY: And he is in Inala (ph) the other day, which is a great place to go and talk about the economy and talk about the manufacturing base. He is a much more -- he is slowly turning into a blue collar kind of candidate, very much so.

O'BRIEN: Making himself a national candidate?

CROWLEY: Yes. And a candidate that moves beyond evangelical and abortion issues, stem cell issues, to blue collar working class.

BROWNSTEIN: There is a demographic opening there. The Republican electorate is different than it used to be. In 2008, half of the voters did not have college educations. It's I much more blue collar party. Mitt Romney has always run better upscale than downscale. He has done better with white collar college educated voters in 2008 and most of polling this year.

So there is an opening there, if Santorum, as Alex says, can expand beyond kind of the social issue focus. And he does have an economic message centered on manufacturing, making things in America.

O'BRIEN: That could be an interesting niche to carve out, because it's really missing.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Most Iowans agree the 2012 election is going to be about the economy. We're just talking about those blue collar workers, cutting spending as well. And one of the first cuts they want to see is in the department of education. Is that a good idea? We'll ask our education contributor Steve Perry just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're looking at the outside and now the inside of the Waveland Cafe, which is where we are.

The most important issue to Iowa's caucus goers is reducing massive government debt, but where to cut spending? A recent poll says that 54 percent of Iowa caucus goers want the Department of Education dissolved.

So Iowa does pretty well when it comes to educating its children. They have one of the best graduation rates in the nation; 88 percent of students graduating in four years. That's very high. And their high school dropout rate is about 3.4 percent, which is about the national average.

So what would happen to those numbers if we eliminated the Department of Education? Joining us this morning to talk about that is CNN's education contributor Steve Perry, founder of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut which is where our "Black in America 2" documentary focused on what he's doing in that school. Nice to see you, Steve. Why is this popular? Not only here in Iowa, where it's pretty popular, but also across the country there are some people pushing for the dissolution of the Department of Education. Why?

STEVE PERRY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Because the Department of Education has quite a lot of resources. It's the third largest cabinet level department. So when people think of the size of it, they are often afraid of it. They don't realize, however, the breadth of the resources that are used. It's not just used for "No Child Left Behind" or "Race to the Top". But it's pre-K all the way up to graduate school because the department does a number of things.

Listen, I am the most anti-bureaucratic guy you're going to meet. I am not in favor of anybody making my job anymore difficult as a principal. However, I do understand as somebody who sends kids to college, I need someone to provide my children with Pell grants, (INAUDIBLE) loans or in some cases G.I. bills. There are a lot of services that the Department provides with just 4,300 employees. In fact, to put that in some relative perspective, the Department of Education is smaller than the employee base of ESPN.

O'BRIEN: Which is an apples-to-nothing comparison.

(CROSSTALK)

PERRY: No. Because you look at the total number of people who do one job, they have $900 billion that they have to oversee.

O'BRIEN: No disrespect to my friend at ESPN. I've got you.

But the question would be really what happens to the Title I funds, right? I mean, is the idea that the Title I aid to low income students, that if you're going to dissolve the Department of Education, then you repeal Title I?

PERRY: You would repeal it or somebody would have to provide those services locally. The expectation is that we have children who are in need. And the federal government says that those children across the country deserve access to quality education; that's what Title I does. It's supposed to provide supplemental services to those children in their area schools. Like in my school, we receive Title I funds to provide academic support to our children.

Removing those services would remove the services. Removing the money would remove the services, which means ultimately that our children don't have tutoring, they don't have parent support, they don't have a number of essential supports that we work with, especially in urban school centers.

Now maybe in Iowa, they don't have some of the same challenges that we do in many of the places where you have quite a large urban population; but we do in Hartford, and in many other parts of the country. So we actually need the services that are provided by the Department of Education, even if they are not always as efficient as we'd like them to be. O'BRIEN: Some people have said who -- who would be on the side of dissolving the Department of Education, you don't need a national yardstick. You can just have states be the yardstick, right?

(CROSSTALK)

PERRY: Yes, they're wrong.

O'BRIEN: Right? I mean, why do you need some kind of national -- why are they wrong?

PERRY: They are wrong, because a child in Mississippi should get the same education as a child --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Why?

PERRY: Well, because a child in Mississippi should get the same education as a child in Massachusetts. If a child in this country is going to be seen as having the same rights, then they should have the same rights to the same education. A child in one community should not be limited in their access to education because of their zip code.

And we need a national watch dog. The Department of Education does not determine what we teach and how we teach in the schools. But they can say that if I give you this money, it should be on par with the others throughout the rest of the country. When we are a country that sees that all children are valuable, we see that there needs to be a national yardstick by which all schools are measured.

And right now, unfortunately, there isn't even one. Even with the race to the top and now the President's flexibility measures, there are going to be -- more and more districts are going to be allowed off the hook.

But "No Child Left Behind" was the first honest conversation this country had around accountability, and maintaining high standards for all children. That's a policy that came through the Department of Education but was not the Department of Education's policy. It was a presidential policy, it was a congressional policy; it was a law.

O'BRIEN: Steve Perry joining us this morning. Thanks, Steve. Appreciate it.

One of the big stories out of Iowa is the race for third place; Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich are spending and spending and spending hoping to get into that top three. But what does being in the top three actually buy you? We'll find out when we reveal our answer, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. We are inside the Waveland Cafe about to wrap up our show. And it's time in fact for the reveal. We'll tell you something that might have you questioning the conventional truth. While Iowa may not be known exactly for picking winners, it does winnow out the contenders.

If you finish in the top three, and you're a shoe-in to continue in the race then it's why -- the nod of (INAUDIBLE) the current number three Rick Santorum has spent an absolute ton of money; a little more than $1 million running for president. That's according to OpenSecrets.org.

Now Rick Perry he's also spent a little more than $2 million; Newt Gingrich, $2.5 million; Michele Bachmann, a whopping $6 million. So you might wonder to yourself, historically, what do you get for all that time, all that money, and all that effort just to come in third?

So here is the reveal. First for the Democrats: 2008, Hillary Clinton came in third. She went on to become President Obama's Secretary of State. That's a pretty good deal. 2004, Howard Dean's famous scream post Iowa sunk his campaign but he went on to become the chairman of the DNC the next year. Paul Tsongas got nothing. It's not until 1988 you see eventual party nominee, Michael Dukakis who came in third.

On the Republican side, Fred Thompson came in third in 2008. He got a radio talk show out of the deal. In 2000, Alan Keyes got his own cable news show from his third place finish. 1996, Lamar Alexander's finish led to work as an adviser for eventual nominee Bob Dole. Not until 1988 again where we see eventual nominee and President George W. Bush placing third.

So is it worth it? Only the candidates know the answer to that for sure.

In our final moments, after the break, we'll tell you what we've learned on STARTING POINT today. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: We have reached the final moments to hear some final points from our panelists. Let's start with John King. Hey, John.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST, "JOHN KING, U.S.A.": Soledad, look in the next 24 hours, ask Republicans out there, what are you hearing on the phone? Are you getting robo calls to trash the candidates? And the big challenge here, win, place, and show; three tickets out of Iowa. Or will there be four? That depends on how bunched-up it is at the top. We're going to have a great 24 hours here.

O'BRIEN: You just love this stuff.

Candy Crowley, I know you love it as well, the race.

CROWLEY: Yes. Picking up on what John said, absolutely watch that third position and see how close fourth and even fifth. Because if third, fourth and fifth are separated by a point, everybody goes, "Not until New Hampshire." South Carolina will earn its name as the Republican fire wall.

BROWNSTEIN: The biggest story in the Republican race has been something that hasn't happened, the right has not coalesced around one alternative to Mitt Romney. The big question in Iowa is whether it produces a viable national alternative to Romney. If it doesn't, he is the winner here no matter what is the order of (INAUDIBLE) are showing.

O'BRIEN: Final words from you.

CASTELLANOS: He is right that Romney could actually win this thing with fewer votes than he lost with last time if the right stays divided. But watch Ron Paul. If he tumbles to third place, he may not have enough money left to do negative ads and attack Romney. Ron Paul, weak showing, good news for Romney.

O'BRIEN: And everybody is watching Rick Santorum, I think --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: -- who will very likely be the story that people are looking at tomorrow.

BROWNSTEIN: That's right.

O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you, guys for being with us.

"CNN NEWSROOM" with Kyra Phillips begins right now.