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Iowa Votes; Interview With Herman Cain; Interview With Presidential Candidate Rick Perry; Interview with Reince Priebus

Aired January 3, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening from the CNN Election Center.

It's nearly zero hour in Iowa, the kickoff point for the 2012 election. That's right. They start voting tonight. As Republicans head to their caucus sites, all eyes are on Mitt Romney. An Iowa is within reach and would make Romney the prohibitive front-runner. Win or lose, his rivals are already sharpening their attacks, among them, Rick Perry who says South Carolina voters won't buy a pig in a poke. The Texas governor among our special guests this hour.

Plus, dramatic pictures that are a warning to any would-be firebugs. Look up before you light up.

We're now just under two hours from the start of Iowa's presidential caucuses, a vote likely to shrink the Republican field and perhaps give us a clear front-runner. Mitt Romney is already predicting -- quote -- "We're going win this thing," but his opponents are promising the former Massachusetts governor will have a much harder time after tonight.

This afternoon the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told reporters his ads will start drawing -- quote -- "a sharper, clearer contrast with Governor Romney" and on CBS this morning, the former speaker, remember, he's the candidate who keeps promising to stay positive, well, Gingrich called Romney a liar.


QUESTION: Are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?


QUESTION: Why are you saying he's a liar?

GINGRICH: This is a man whose staff created the PAC. His millionaire friends fund the PAC. He pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It's baloney. He's not telling the American people the truth. It's just like his pretense that he's a conservative.


KING: Now Governor Romney's laughing off Gingrich's attempt to be more aggressive.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand the speaker apparently's angry. And I wish him well. We like he and Callista. And we have got a long road ahead. And hopefully we will be able to connect with the American people in the way that gets the support that we need.


KING: CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley spoke with Governor Romney today. She's with us live in Des Moines.

Now, Candy, has to be a great sense of anticipation but also a little bit of anxiety as Governor Romney sees an Iowa win within reach, but remembers four years ago.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, when he's spent $10 million, only to come in a distant third to Mike Huckabee. So, yes, they are a little burnt by this, but I have to tell you, it is palpable within the Romney campaign that they feel very good about tonight.

The governor himself, I had a chance to speak to just as he was briefly going through the rope line after a speech this morning, and, you know, even he doesn't want to jinx this at this point. He says, I feel good, I think we will do well, I think we will be in the top three.

Of course, anyone who read the "Des Moines Register" poll would probably think that. They're looking for a good night. Would they love a number one? They would. That's why I think, John, you are hearing Mitt Romney kind of brush off Newt Gingrich. You don't want to tangle right now. You want to stay upbeat and positive, and do some of that, those speeches with that sort of high-flying rhetoric, which is what he did today.

KING: And to that point, Candy, Governor Romney is focused on President Obama, not his Republican rivals in the closing hours. He also brought his sons out to stump for him today. And they were telling some family stories. Let's listen.


TAGG ROMNEY, SON OF MITT ROMNEY: Rather than paying someone to build a fence, he decided he was going to work with his five sons and his wife and he was going to build this fence on his own.

My dad is extraordinarily cheap. He is as cheap a human being as you have ever met. He could have afforded to have someone else come in and build that fence, but he wanted to do it himself.


KING: Explain to me why they think "My dad's cheap," Candy, is a good closing message in this campaign.


CROWLEY: That's right. Because what's been the rap on Mitt Romney? He's too distant, he's aloof, he doesn't have one of the storylines that people like to tell about their childhood, and how they understand the pain of America.

This is about putting the flesh on Mitt Romney that some people say he looks like an executive but he doesn't look like he cares. That's what the family does, that's what wives do, that's what sons do. That's what this campaign has been for these last couple of weeks. And he has been out here with his family.

For Mitt Romney, the message is, make no mistakes. For his family it's to kind of humanize the guy as they move forward. Here's what he is about. He's not an automaton CEO who cuts people out of their jobs. He's flesh and bones and that's what this is about out here.

KING: Candy Crowley, important duty tonight at the Romney headquarters, the second time around for Governor Romney. He hopes Iowa this time makes him the prohibitive front-runner. Candy, thank you.

And in the hours before tonight's big vote, Ron Paul's campaign, well, launched its strongest attack so far against Governor Romney. Listen to this, part of a one-minute radio ad.


NARRATOR: Romney's record is liberal. And putting him up against Obama is a recipe for defeat. That candidate who can beat Obama is Dr. Ron Paul.


KING: CNN's Dana Bash is covering the Paul campaign tonight.

Dana, at the last hours, to go after Governor Romney they obviously think they need to peel a little bit from him, if Congressman Paul is to get what he wants tonight, the prize in Iowa.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is a little bit of a surprise that they're running this last- minute radio ad. Not a surprise what the message is. They're using the L-word just like they used yesterday in an interview that I had with the congressman about Rick Santorum.

Those are obviously the two threats that Ron Paul believes he has tonight. Of course you remember four years ago, John, Ron Paul finished a distant fifth with just 10 percent of the vote. And the expectations were incredibly low last time around, this time very, very different. He has been doing incredibly well in the polls.

And that means that the expectations are quite high. His campaign is now saying very similar things to what Mitt Romney's saying, which is that he hopes to finish in the top three. But, look, the question is whether or not what has really become kind of lore here, the organization that he has and has been building for four years, whether or not that will really kick in and do him well, even better than third tonight.

KING: Well, that's fascinating if you look back because Ron Paul has an older libertarian base, but he's now depending on younger voters. And he doesn't strike me as an "American Idol" fan, but at least one former "Idol" winner is a fan of Ron Paul. And listen here. Ron Paul's looking to make the most of it.


REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm wondering, does anybody here know the name Kelly Clarkson?


PAUL: Because, recently, recently, she endorsed me a couple of weeks ago and something happened because I had to admit, I didn't know a whole lot about her.


KING: Even the pictures, Dana, fascinating, the oldest candidate in the Republican field, all those college students behind him. How important are the new, younger voters to the Paul recipe for success tonight?

BASH: Incredibly important. I was at that event today. The other two candidates who spoke, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, they got pretty good responses, but nothing like, as you said, the 76- year-old candidate from all these young voters, first-time caucus voters.

There's no question those are the kinds of people the Paul campaign are really relying on to actually not just say, yes, we like Ron Paul, but get out and vote for him. One other interesting thing that I found in talking to the young voters there, something I know you have found in traveling the country and talking to people, they like Ron Paul because they feel that he is authentic.

They're really annoyed with the politicians, and they're annoyed with the government in general and they think that Ron Paul actually says what he means and does what he says. And that's something that we don't see, they say, a lot in politics anymore.

KING: Dana Bash at Paul campaign headquarters, a big night tonight ahead for her as well. Dana, thank you.

Dana mentioned authenticity. One reason Christian conservatives say they like the Pennsylvania senator, the former Senator Rick Santorum is for the same reason. Santorum now downplaying his expectations tonight. Remember, the "Des Moines Register" poll showed him shooting up in the last few days. Santorum tonight said it would be great just to crack the top three.

At his last-minute stops today, trying to convince undecided voters he's the best choice to take on President Obama come November.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Every decision that's going to be made here in the next few years, whether Obamacare is repealed or whether it's kept in place, whether taxes are going to grow, whether this deficit that is now crushing the economy and will crush your pocketbooks in the future is going to be dealt with, so you won't have a lower standard of living, it's your future.


KING: Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, they were the top three in that final Iowa poll, but that doesn't guarantee they will end the night the big winners.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, here with me for a closer look at the different paths to victory in Iowa.

This is the 2008 map. I bring it up for this reason. Governor Romney did well here, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Dubuque, the -- quote, unquote -- "urban areas," the cities in Iowa. They're not very big. He also did well out here. This is a huge test tonight. This is a more conservative part of the state.

Team Romney says this, they want high turnout, higher than the 118,000 last time, they want more women, more senior citizens, fewer evangelical voters from a percentage standpoint. They believe that gets them victory tonight. Why?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, because those voters, the evangelicals, would certainly help Rick Santorum and they don't want that kind of a turnout.

Women do very well with Mitt Romney. They like him. And they don't want the sort of ideological purists, if you will. Those are not his people. His people are that sort of solid 25 percent that have liked him all along. They believe he's electable. And they want those people to come to the polls tonight. They don't want kind of those new...

KING: They don't want this.

BORGER: They don't want the younger voters that Ron Paul might bring. They just want their dependable Mitt Romney voters to come out.

KING: This is the evangelical base of Mike Huckabee four years ago.

I want to come forward to 2012. We will clear out the map. Here are the colors as they fill in tonight. Watch this as we go on tonight. This will fill in live as the results come in. Here, some interesting questions. We have the evangelical voters. The darker the area on the map, the higher the percentage of evangelical voters. If you talk to people in the Santorum campaign, they say they will go into the caucuses, look the Perry people in the eye, look the Bachmann people in the eye and say, your candidate can't win, you have to support us so that we have a conservative voice in this election.

What the Romney team hopes is Bachmann and Perry adds up to about 15, 18 percent tonight. They think that blocks Santorum from winning.

Evangelicals, how important?

BORGER: If they divide, evangelicals divide, Romney conquers. That's what it is.

Romney doesn't want the evangelical voters to turn and say, you know what? We kind of like Rick Santorum now, we think we're going to unify behind a candidate. That's what happened with Mike Huckabee in 2008, and that was what gave Huckabee the huge percentage, 45 percent of them. He really needs evangelicals to split, absolutely.

KING: We will show you a little bit later in the show. Gloria, thank you.

A little bit later, we will also break down the Tea Party vote here in Iowa. Evangelicals big in 2008. The Tea Party, that's a new element in 2012. We will see how that plays out.

Still ahead, it wasn't long ago he was in the lead. Now he's on the sidelines. We will ask Herman Cain his choice among the remaining candidates.

And despite his stumbles in Iowa, Texas Governor Rick Perry says he has got plenty of fight left. Governor Perry joins us next with a preview of the tough message he says he's bringing to South Carolina.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mitt Romney has got a real problem when it comes to consistency. Those folks in South Carolina, I can promise you, they're not going to buy a pig in a poke.


KING: Plenty more to come.

We're setting the stage for CNN's special coverage, America's Choice 2012, the Iowa caucuses. Don't go away.


KING: Running for president can be a humbling experience. Just ask Rick Perry. The Texas governor was the summer surge candidate in the GOP field, but a few big debate gaffes changed everything, forcing Perry onto late-night TV in hopes of winning a second or a third chance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN") PERRY: Hey, listen, you try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude.



KING: The Perry campaign has bought the most Iowa TV ads, yet the final polls show Governor Perry running fifth among the six candidates contesting Iowa. So, before spending a little time with us today, Perry asked his final Iowa crowds to consider the 2012 stakes.


PERRY: This election is about stopping a president of the United States and his administration that is abusing the Constitution of this country, that is putting America on a track to bankruptcy. And, folks, we are going to take America back. That's what this is about.



KING: Governor Perry, I appreciate your time on such an important, busy day.

You have never lost an election. And if you look at numbers, things look pretty bleak tonight. What happened?

PERRY: Well, let's wait until tomorrow before we say whether anything looks bleak or not.

There's 40 percent of the people that are still out there haven't made their decision, and I have got over 500-plus people that have come over 32 states to work the phone banks and to caucus for us tonight. So I feel pretty confident that we're going to come out of Iowa with some good momentum and head on to the other states and this thing is a long way from being over. So it's a marathon. It's not a sprint.

KING: Senator Santorum has surged in recent days. His folks are going to go into those caucuses tonight, sir, and they're going to look the Bachmann people in the eye, they're going to look the Perry people in the eye, and they're going to say, they're good candidate, but we need to have a single conservative emerge from Iowa as the alternative to Mitt Romney.

How do you counter that?

PERRY: Well, I agree with that analysis. It's correct.

And I'm the only person who has got a national organization, who has the ability to raise the money nationally, and has the ground game in these other states to do that. So that is an absolute correct analysis, but it's not Rick Santorum. And, frankly, Rick's going to have a real problem when he leaves and people start vetting his background from a fiscal conservative standpoint.

This guy's the king of earmarks and pork barrel spending. He was the liaison between Washington and K Street. And he's got some real bags that he's going to have to explain to people. And that's going to be a problem for him.

KING: If you wake up tomorrow morning and see Governor Perry in a disappointing fourth or a disappointing fifth, is there any point where you would say, you know what, that's a message, we're going home, or are you going to South Carolina regardless?

PERRY: I'm headed to South Carolina.

The plane will be warmed up in the morning and we will be headed to Aiken, South Carolina, to continue on. I mean, the idea that one or two states is going to decide who the next nominee for the Republican Party is, is just -- you know, that's not reality.

This is a 50-state campaign. And it's about the future of America. And I think Americans are ready for an outsider who will go to Washington, D.C., and overhaul the place, an executive who has got the governing experience of 11 years of running the 13th largest economy in the world, and doing it in a way that has made Texas the number-one job creation state in America.

That's what Americans are pining for, someone who will get Washington off of their back, out of their pockets, and allow entrepreneurs to have the freedom to risk capital and create jobs. And I'm it.

KING: If Governor Romney comes out of Iowa with a win or a strong second and then wins New Hampshire, how do you stop him in South Carolina?

PERRY: Well, I just think you go and share with the people of South Carolina the real message of who has the consistency and is an authentic conservative.

I mean, Mitt Romney has got a real problem when it comes to consistency. Those folks in South Carolina, I can promise you, they're not going to buy a pig in a poke, so to speak. And a Massachusetts governor that put individual mandates in place that Obama took as the model to create Obamacare is not going to sell in South Carolina.

KING: Do you worry at all, sir, that you will have a repeat of 2008? Huckabee, a Christian conservative candidate, wins the state of Iowa. John McCain comes back and wins the state of New Hampshire. And in South Carolina, Fred Thompson stayed in the race. And so McCain ekes out a victory.

If you look through the data -- and I have scrubbed it for years, sir -- if you look at it, if Fred Thompson doesn't stay in, Huckabee probably wins South Carolina, you have a very different race back in 2008. Are you worried at all that if a Perry, a Bachmann, a Santorum, and others stay in the race, that you're essentially spoilers on the right, and you allow Romney to sneak through?

PERRY: I think this election -- and you will probably agree with this, John -- is so different than any election that you have ever seen in the past, that to try to go back and make some comparables between an '08 or an '04 or a 2000 election with what's going on right now is an interesting exercise, but the fact is, this election is far from decided.

And today won't decide it, I will suggest to you. South Carolina will come near giving us a better clue who's going to be the Republican nominee. But we're going to work hard the rest of the day here, and expect to have a good showing.

KING: I couldn't agree more that one of the big things we will look for tonight is how different is this Republican Party from the Republican Party four years ago? How do the evangelicals break? How does the Tea Party break?

Governor Perry, appreciate your time on a very busy day. Best of luck in the final hours in Iowa. And we will see you ahead on the road in South Carolina.

PERRY: John, thank you.

KING: Thank you, sir.

PERRY: Godspeed.

KING: Herman Cain also among our special guests this hour, as we count down the minutes until Iowans vote. We asked Mr. Cain if he's ready to make an endorsement and whether he thinks Mitt Romney can sew up the nomination with wins in Iowa and then New Hampshire.


HERMAN CAIN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think it's a done deal that he would be the presumptive leader and he would have the momentum necessary to get it.


KING: And next: new developments after a string of five Molotov cocktail attacks in the New York area.


KING: Welcome back, back to Iowa's big vote -- more politics in just a moment.


KING: And President Obama -- well, it's a Republican game tonight, but President Obama's not sitting out the Iowa caucuses. Find out how he's trying to grab a bit of the spotlight. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: Just over 90 minutes -- live pictures Des Moines, Iowa, there -- just over 90 minutes to start of Iowa's caucuses. Trust me, you want to stay right here on CNN and watch this play out tonight.

And here's tonight's "Truth." The most important thing isn't who wins. Stay with us for the one thing you really need to pay attention to tonight.

Plus, Herman Cain's out of the race, but still watching very closely. We will ask him if he's ready to make an endorsement.

And back in November, Iowa's governor wrote down his prediction of tonight's winner. You see it right there. He sealed it in an envelope exclusively for us. Tonight, we will open it.

As Iowa Republicans head out to vote tonight, all eyes on Mitt Romney, including a set of eyes at the White House. President Obama is back from vacation and will address tonight's Democratic caucuses on a video hookup to Iowa. Let's check in with our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jess, the president doesn't have an opponent. Why does he think it's important to check in in Iowa?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in general, for the Obama campaign, there's a sense that, if Mitt Romney wins tonight, they'll be curious to see by how much, John.

You know, the sources I talked to believe that Mitt Romney will be the eventual nominee. That's no secret. But what they want to know is, can he really deliver some kind of knockout punch tonight, because he has invested a great deal of time -- not a great deal of time here but a great deal of money here. He is the establishment candidate, if you will.

He has said, and then walked back, that he believes he could win here. So they clearly dedicated a commitment to Iowa. And the Obama team will be curious to see if he can capture a significant amount of the vote. And if he doesn't, no doubt expect them tomorrow to say that this is a major loss for Mitt Romney, John.

KING: And if you're President Obama or you're his political team, Jim Acina (ph) and David Axelrod, Jess, what's their dream outcome for Iowa tonight?

YELLIN: I'd say that the dream outcome would be for somebody like a Rick Santorum to win, because he is -- or somebody who is among the more conservative candidates. And that's because it would, in theory, force Mitt Romney further to the right.

And if Mitt Romney, given what I said before, that they expect that Romney will be the eventual nominee, if Romney has to run further to the right in the primary, then the assumption is if he becomes -- becomes the nominee in the general election, he'll have to run to the center and then defend all of those more conservative positions he has taken during this -- during the primary. Plus, it will just create a protracted primary which is always better for an incumbent president. If he doesn't have to slog it out for all those months, all the better for him to sit back at the White House, travel the campaign trail and just watch all those Republicans slug it out, John.

KING: The president would like to watch that. Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. Jess, thanks.

It's a long way, you know, from tonight's caucuses to the general election. That's November 6. And we're even farther now from the Republicans' blowout election back in 2010. Still Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus hoping for a clean sweep. He wants the White House, the Senate and a majority in the House of Representatives. The chairman is with us from Washington tonight.

Mr. Chairman, let me try to bait you first. I have in this envelope a secret prediction from Governor Terry Branstad. He wrote it down for me back in November. What's yours? Who's going to win?

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN: Well, that's a good one, John. Look, I think that the American people are going to win tonight, because it's the green flag of this race is going down. And we're busy at the Republican National Committee, pointing out the fact that, starting today with the release of a new ad, that the president's given us so much material and so many speeches and so much hot air coming out of his mouth, that he's given us so much material that we've got videos coming out every couple days of what he promised the American people four years ago, three years ago, and what he delivered, using his words, the standard that he set for himself.

And that's the job that we have, the job we have here at the RNC is to put an army on the ground, to put the grassroots on the ground, we've got a new mobile application that anyone can get to. You can get the results of tonight's primary election in real time, as we get them, if you text the word "results" to 91919, and you'll get that.

So I'm excited for a lot of different reasons, and that's because we've got a job to do in making sure that we make Barack Obama a one- term president starting tonight.

KING: Starting tonight, that's your case. But starting tonight you also get to see how your race plays out. And there's not an app for this. Sometimes things get nasty after the first race, as the people who are on the edge of falling out of the race. Sometimes they get a little more nasty, and sometimes it's the chairman of the party's job to step in and referee.

Where do you, sir, draw the line? Say Mitt Romney has a strong Iowa showing tonight, maybe a win or a strong second, and then he wins New Hampshire. Do you pick up the phone at that point and say, "Back off, everybody. This guy's the prohibitive favorite, probably our nominee. Go easy"?

PRIEBUS: Well, no. And certainly not at that point. You know, and I don't know what that point is, other than the fact that I will tell you that I really -- I don't really see a scenario where the RNC chairman starts getting involved with all of these candidates and starts telling them what they should do or shouldn't do. I think what the reality is, though, is that primaries are good for our party. I happen to believe that, John. It's not something...

KING: Do you want a long -- do you want a long contest? Obama benefited from the long race with Clinton last time. Would you prefer a long one or a short one?

PRIEBUS: You know, honestly, I really don't care either way. Obviously, I don't see it as a hindrance if it does go on for some time. I think it is a good thing. I think that, if you look at these governors across the Midwest that all won in 2010, not a single one of them came through a cake walk in their own party, and they won in blue states.

So I don't buy this idea that tough primaries or any sort of drama is a bad thing. I think it's a good thing. And I think it's everyone talking. You're all talking about it. All of the other channels are talking about it. And I think it's good for our party, and I think it's good for our chances to defeat Barack Obama.

KING: You used the word "drama." One of the dramas we have had in those campaign, is first Donald Trump was going to run as a Republican. Now he says, well, nobody would come to his debate, because he hasn't rules out running as an independent.

What's your message to somebody like Donald Trump, who one would assume, at least on the surface, but probably draw Republican votes, or to Ron Paul, who says probably not but hasn't said definitely not when it comes to running as a third-party candidate if he doesn't get the nomination?

PRIEBUS: Well, first, I don't think Ron Paul does such a thing. I really don't believe that for a second.

As far as Donald Trump is concerned, a like him a whole lot, but quite frankly, I think if he did run he would take more votes away from Barack Obama. If not, I think probably a 50/50 split at worse. But so I don't really get into that.

I mean, right now, my job is to put a ground game out there in places like Iowa and Ohio and Virginia and all across these battleground states, raise a whole ton of money to defeat the campaigner in chief, and really connect the dots with the American people when it comes to giving them a real choice, from a president who made a whole lot of promises and loves giving speeches and didn't deliver, and someone that we can say, look, this person is going to help save this country economically from a president who hasn't delivered. It's the fundamentals, it's the ground game, that's what we do at the Republican National Committee.

KING: And we get our first test tonight of the intensity in the Republican Party. Chairman, we'll talk to you in the months ahead as we go on. And diplomatic tonight. We'll see if you have to play a little bit more elbows, secretary of state role in the future. PRIEBUS: All right.

KING: It's nice to see you tonight.

PRIEBUS: Happy new year.

KING: Happy new year to you, sir. Thank you very much.

And tonight's "Truth" maps out the biggest test for Republicans tonight. And now that some time has passed, Herman Cain responds to the allegations that derailed his presidential campaign.


HERMAN CAIN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, I feel burned. Those accusations were baseless.



KING: Tonight's vote in Iowa is the first official test of Campaign 2012. And as such, it is vitally important. Here's tonight's "Truth." Who votes tonight is just as important, perhaps even more important than who wins. Why?

Well, consider our volatile recent political history. In a country so evenly divided, passion, intensity is critical, the critical ingredient to victory.

2006, you'll remember, a big Democratic wave year powered by opposition to the Iraq war and high post-Katrina disapproval for President George W. Bush.

Ditto for 2008: almost everywhere you traveled back then, you could see and feel the intensity gap. Democrats were eager to vote and volunteer. Republicans, not so much.

But then in 2010, the Tea Party surprise and the Republican resurgence. The intensity gap favored the right in that election, big time.

And so what will it be for 2012? Which party will have the advantage of intensity? We get our first clue in a little more than an hour.

A little more than 118,000 Republicans voted in the GOP caucuses back in 2008. If that number is flat or down tonight, well consider that an early victory for President Obama.

Iowa has just four electoral college votes, but it is a classic swing state, voting Republican seven times, Democratic six times in the past 13 presidential elections. We're about to find out if the GOP has a serious chance to contest Iowa next November. About to find out if Republicans begin this critical year with the intensity it will take to defeat a vulnerable but a formidable incumbent. And truth is, it's not just the overall turnout number. The Republican coalition, it's pretty complicated. Tea Party voters and evangelicals often have issues with the Republican establishment. But if they are not all excited, intense, from the get-go this year, it will make President Obama's path to re-election easier.

So, yes, Iowa tonight begins the process of narrowing the Republican field. And that's important. But truth is, in the long run, what we learn over the next few hours about overall GOP intensity or lack therefore could well be the night's most important lesson.

CNN contributors James Carville, Dana Loesch, Ari Fleischer here to help set the stage for tonight's big vote.

You're a product of the Tea Party movement. Is the Tea Party movement as excited, as energized this year as it was in 2010? You're shaking your head already. Already, there are people in camp Obama say good.

DANA LOESCH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think -- it depends how you look at it. Tea Partiers from everyone that I've heard, and of course, you know, there are so many different groups out there, so every different group has a different opinion. Every different Tea Partier as an individual has an opinion.

But Tea Partiers are more concerned with beating the White House incumbent. They're more concerned with beating Obama than they are excited about a single candidate in the GOP field. So that's what we're seeing.

KING: What is your biggest question about the intensity gap and whether the Republican coalition will come together in the right way?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don't think there's a problem on the Republican side with intensity. My big worry is the Democrats come home. The Democrats who just have said, we're not satisfied with Obama. He's let us down. He's not the great hope and change he was. All of a sudden, come October, they start to realize we could lose the White House. They come home. That's what I think is the issue this is going to be. Because I think the Republicans, plenty energized to get Barack Obama out of there.

KING: As one of the few guys left alive who's actually run a successful Democratic presidential campaign, when you look at this early on, you're the incumbent. You ran in 1996. It was an easier race, I think you'd be fair to say, easier race than President Obama will have this time around than you were for President Clinton, because of the economic conditions. What are you looking for tonight as you start to build your file? What are we going to have to worry about, come November? What's your biggest question?

I think the -- what David, Axelrod and David Plouffe and those guys want is they want this thing to continue. And every day that goes on, the more that they're out there, the tireder they are, the more stressed they are, of course, the more forced they are to say things. We have just caught (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and Gingrich calling Romney a liar and all of the stuff like that.

And so I think the trend of the Democrats is we want this thing to continue. As you just mentioned, Speaker Gingrich has said, "I'm Mr. Positive. I'm going to keep it positive. We're going to have this experiment. We're going to prove that voters reward the nice guy."

I see you shaking your head. Your history says that doesn't work. But Newt Gingrich also has a past, and he's a smart guy. You know, if he goes overly negative, people will think the caustic Newt is back. But listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you call Mitt Romney (ph) a liar?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, I was asked if I think that he's a liar. I said yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you still think that he's a liar?



GINGRICH: Because he doesn't tell the truth.


KING: If this gets nasty out here -- Newt is wounded. If he was at the top of the pack. It was a Romney political action committee, not directly the Romney campaign. But they beat him up pretty good. Ron Paul beat him up pretty good. Is it a good thing or a bad thing if they move on to New Hampshire and you have Gingrich essentially saying, "I'm going to rip Romney's skin off"?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I don't think anybody's crossed any lines yet. This is politics. And this is the last day of a hot political campaign. And somebody says something probably a way they should go on TV and should take it back. They're not exactly beating each other up the way this business used to be.

Having said that, if I'm Mitt Romney, I'm ducking tomorrow. Because they have to get after Romney. Romney's divided caucus strategy is working, and the only way a Republican is going to take him now is to really make the case he's not the conservative that you think he is. And that's going to have to be powerful, dense rhetorical case.

KING: The question, the singular question about this whole Republican race is that who emerges as the conservative alternative to Romney? Is Santorum a viable lasting 10-, 12-, 15-state alternative to Romney?

LOESCH: I don't think he is. Personally, I don't think so. And looking at... KING: Then who is?

LOESCH: He's one of the reasons -- he's one of the candidates that conservatives voted out in 2006, because he embodied everything, all of the big Republican establishment stuff, like the No Child Left Behind and everything else.

KING: Prefer Romney to Santorum?


KING: So what are you going to do?

LOESCH: I don't know. That's the -- that's the predicament I'm in.

KING: Mitt Romney's dreams come true (ph).


CARVILLE: You've got to learn. You're supposed to fake it.

LOESCH: I can't. That's why I would never have a career in politics. I couldn't make it.

CARVILLE: You can't fake it.

KING: Another big question tonight is how well does Ron Paul do? I don't think anyone at the table thinks he can be the Republican nominee. But he can be your party's Jesse Jackson. Because of the new rules, it's not winner takes all anymore. There are some proportional.

So I want you to listen to Ron Paul. One of his big things is he has this older libertarian base, but these young people love him. Why?


REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Because our campaign has been known to being a great appeal to the young people. And a lot of times people ask me that. I don't know the exact reason for it. But for one thing, I do talk to a lot of young people. I ask him why you're enthusiastic about the campaign. One of the most common answers that I get is that I endorse the Constitution and defend the Constitution constantly in Washington, and that's very appealing to young people.


KING: Are we going to be at the convention in Tampa. Ron Paul's going to have enough delegates to say, "I want speaking time. I want platform influence"?

FLEISCHER: I don't think it matters that much in the bigger scheme of things. He'll give a speech at the convention. He may deserve it, depending on how many nominees -- of delegates he gets. But in the end, Iowa is Ron Paul's high-water mark. It's all downhill from here for Ron Paul.

KING: Impact player?

CARVILLE: Yes, could be. Again, the Pat Buchanan speech of '92. And I was pretty pleased with that. Still -- just let him go when, you know -- he's going to make himself -- he has something to (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KING: James, Ari, Dana, all with us tonight as we count the votes in Iowa. A lot of Iowa Republicans getting in the car right now, heading out to caucuses. The man who made 9-9-9 his calling card, Herman Cain, gives us his take on the big night ahead.

And the envelope please. This is a CNN and a JOHN KING USA exclusive. We reveal the Iowa governor's prediction for tonight's caucuses.



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KING: Watching closely along with the rest of us tonight will be a man who not too long ago had dreams of winning the Iowa caucuses and the Republican presidential nomination. But Georgia businessman Herman Cain suspended his campaign exactly one month ago, after allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity that he calls baseless, but were nonetheless taking a toll on both his family and his political standing.

Mr. Cain is with us tonight in the countdown to tonight's big vote.

Sir, we appreciate your time. I want to ask you this. In just a few moments, Iowa voters will go into the room. They'll lock the doors. The candidates will make their pitch, and then we will have a vote.

If Mitt Romney has a strong showing in Iowa tonight, then goes on to win New Hampshire, he would be the prohibitive favorite to be the nominee. Is that good or bad for the Republican Party?

CAIN: Well, I don't think that's necessarily the right conclusion. Because Iowa and New Hampshire will certainly narrow the field. But remember, back in 2008, John, Mitt Romney had trouble in the south. And I think that it is still a question as to how well he would do in the south, if you just look at some of the polls by state that have been taken over the past couple of months.

KING: A Herman Cain endorsement sure would help in the south. If he came out of Iowa and New Hampshire as the winner, would you stand by his side in South Carolina?

CAIN: Not exactly, John. And here's why. You see, my mission is to help get the Republican nominee elected president. And in order to do that, I don't want to fragment my supporters. They've already made up their mind, many of them, who they want to support. But you see, if I were to endorse, it could fragment my base, as well as people that consider themselves politically homeless.

And my role in the coming months will be to try and help keep voters informed, involved and inspired, because the last thing that I want to see is for people to lose interest in this campaign, and staying home would be a vote for Barack Obama. So I'm on a different mission now.

KING: Forgive me for interrupting. I want to talk more about your role looking forward in just a moment. But I want to ask you tonight, as we wait to count these first official votes of Campaign 2012, a process that you were so deeply involved in, do you feel at all burned?

CAIN: Yes, I feel burned. And the reason is, because as you indicated at the top of the show, those accusations were baseless, but unfortunately, some people in the media were going to continue to spin them. And it distracted me and my campaign from talking about what I care most about: solutions. That's what this should be about.

Much of the negative campaigning that's been going on by the Republicans I think has been damaging to the Republican Party. And so one of the reasons I'm going to be announcing my new initiative is I want to get the American public, especially the conservative voters, focused back on the solutions to problems that we ought to be talking about, not just all of the negative attacks.

KING: Tell me a bit more about what you plan. You want to start a new movement, a new initiative, you say, to keep your voters engaged, to get other voters involved, focus on the substance. If you need a new movement, a new initiative, doesn't that in some say you believe the Republican Party is failing us?

CAIN: I believe that the Republican Party is not focused enough. I don't believe that they're failing. They're not focused enough. And it takes the candidates to talk about specific solutions. That's where I believe that the Republican candidates have, quite frankly, not been aggressive enough. KING: Is the inevitable conclusion of this new movement at some point Herman Cain on another ballot, maybe running for senate, maybe running for governor?

CAIN: Senate, no. Governor, no. The probability of running for president again, that's probably a no, too.

Remember, John, I have a biological clock like everybody else. And I made a promise to myself. I'm only going to work nine more years. So I doubt if you might see that. There are some other things that I'm looking at doing that are very, very interesting that you would hear about. But no, I don't have any immediate plans of running for another office at this particular point in time. But you never say never.

KING: Never say never. I get that, sir. In a conversation with my colleague Piers Morgan, you said if a Republican does win the White House, you do have a dream job. Let's listen.


CAIN: The job I would most like would be secretary of defense. The reason I would say I want to be secretary of defense is not that you want to be a defense expert. It's that I would want to be in a position to try to influence the president on one of our most critical crises, and that's our national security crisis.


KING: You once worked for the Navy, sir, as a ballistics analyst, I believe, was the job. And you ran a food service industry. You were the CEO of a pizza chain at one point. Do you really think you're qualified to be defense secretary?

CAIN: How do you define qualified? One thing people didn't talk about when I was a candidate, I also served as an advisory board member for the strategic air command when I lived in Omaha, Nebraska.

I believe that the Defense Department needs strong leadership more than they need someone who might be a defense expert just as I believe that's what's needed in every one of the cabinet positions.

KING: May I ask you lastly, sir. Many people will watch tonight and some across the country will ask why is Iowa first? Why is this state that is 89 percent white in the middle of the country, doesn't have big urban areas, doesn't have big suburban areas, not as diverse as other parts of the country, why does it get to go first? Should it?

CAIN: Well, it's more tradition than anything else. But the biggest role that Iowa plays, as well as New Hampshire, is that it should help to narrow down the field. I think that that is a good thing, because when you narrow down the field, you then give the later primaries an opportunity to take a look at the candidates a lot closer, because hopefully you'll be dealing with a much smaller number. Now, the downside is, because New Hampshire is only a week after Iowa, some of the candidates that might be marginal at this point, they might just try to hang on. I don't know.

KING: We'll keep in touch in the weeks and months ahead as Herman Cain plots his next move. Mr. King, appreciate your time as we prepare to watch Iowa caucuses get up and count the folks. You take care, sir.

CAIN: Thanks, John.

KING: Thank you.

Kate Bolduan back with us now to help close the hour as we do every night with a moment you might have missed.

Tonight is a "can't miss" exclusive, a prediction from Iowa's top Republican. Back when we interviewed Governor Terry Branstad -- it was at the Drake Diner. You see it right there -- early November, we asked him -- and you're watching him do it right there -- to secretly share his prediction for tonight's big winner. He sealed it in that envelope, and we promised not to open it until tonight just before the voting takes place.

Well, here's the envelope. And the voting is about to take place. Are you ready, Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I am very ready. I never thought that you and I would be hosting some kind of awards show together. It's very exciting.

KING: And the nominees are Bachmann, Santorum, Paul, Romney and so on.

BOLDUAN: Drumroll, please.

KING: All right. Here we go. Ready? I'm going to open the envelope. Governor Branstad is a good sport. He trusted us to do this. We've got a drumroll and everything. There you see on the outside of the envelope, "Terry Branstad." He wrote his name for us. I have no idea what is on this piece of paper. None at all.

Wow. OK, Governor Branstad predicts Romney, Mitt Romney. Governor Terry Branstad predicting back in November, the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney so disappointed in Iowa four years ago that he would be the big winner tonight? What do you think?

BOLDUAN: I think that he's playing where a lot of people think the favorite is right now. But as we always know, John, we'll never know until the last vote is cast. That is the beauty of this whole thing tonight.

KING: It is the beauty of it. Governor Terry Branstad, a lot of experience in his state. Caucuses going back 20 years and more. Mitt Romney, the prediction from Governor Terry Branstad tonight. I want everybody -- Kate, thank you -- to stay right here in the minutes and the hours ahead. We're going to see if Governor Terry Branstad called it right as we watch and count the first official votes of the 2012 presidential campaign. Stay right here. CNN's special coverage, "America's Choice, 2012," the Iowa Caucuses.