Return to Transcripts main page

CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Mitt Romney Wins Iowa Caucuses by Eight Votes; Political Analysts Look at GOP Presidential Race Going Forward; Spotlight on South Carolina; Romney Tops Santorum by Eight Votes; Iowa's Photo Finish; Interview with Mitt Romney; Mitt Romney Discusses Iowa Caucus Win

Aired January 4, 2012 - 07:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: Mitt Romney winning, but by eight votes. It came down to one mystery precinct and one missing county. We've already staked out in the next two critical battlegrounds, of course, New Hampshire and South Carolina and we're talking to last night's big winner as he moves on to home turf. Also Ron Paul later on. People are doing a lot of talking about his showing last night. STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning, everybody. We are back at the Waveland Cafe. It was the closest GOP president contest in the United States history, but it only became official a few hours ago. Mitt Romney, 30,015 votes. Santorum only eight votes behind at 30,007. Both candidates coming out to speak before the final votes came in last night. Romney moved on, his eyes on the big prize. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You are working, I am working, and we're all working together because of our passion for this country and a concern led by a president who may be a nice guy but just is over his head. And I look at his campaign -- you know, four years ago tonight he was giving a victory celebration speech here in Des Moines, and he'd been going across the state making all sorts of promises. The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I've ever seen in my life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Mitt Romney, he was talking there about President Barack Obama, but, really, it's Rick Santorum who he's talking to and we'll be talking about this morning. He's speaking of a big endorsement. John McCain who twice won the New Hampshire primary, and he beat Mitt Romney back in 2008. As for Rick Santorum, his surge coming at the right time, coming up just short. It was built on that traditional Iowa caucus campaign, 400 rallies, 99 counties. Santorum with one message to Iowa voters before it's off to New Hampshire and he said this --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you so much, Iowa. (APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: You -- you, by standing up and not compromising. By standing up and being bold and leading, Leading with that burden and responsibility you have to be first, you have taken the first step of taking back this country.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: And it looks like first in, first out. After a disappointing showing in last night's caucuses, Texas governor Rick Perry says he'll go home and do some thinking. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK PERRY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With the voters' decision tonight in Iowa, I've decided to return it Texas, assess the results of tonight's caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: A closer look now at who voted for Mitt Romney? Who voted for Rick Santorum? Who voted for Ron Paul specifically, and why? Christine Romans is breaking down those numbers for us this morning. She's at the CNN election center. Hey, Christine, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. From where you are in Iowa to where we are here in Iowa, this is what it looked like last night. All of this purple is Rick Santorum. He took the middle part of the state.

I want to go back to 2008 in Iowa so you can see some of the similarities here. Look at this middle part of the state, this very rural part of Iowa in 2008 went to Mike Huckabee who won with 35 percent of vote in 2008. In 2008, there was one county, just one county for Ron Paul. By 2012, Ron Paul picked up all of this extra territory here. And this red, of course, is Mitt Romney. And Mitt Romney, you know, basically had the same, even maybe a few votes less this time around in the Iowa caucuses than in 2008. So the people voting for him, the same number of people voting for him in 2008 voting for him in 2012.

So if all of this is Ron Paul resurgence here and a surge for Rick Santorum, why did Mitt Romney win Iowa, then? You can figure out that by looking at population. This magic wall here sizes for population. You see across the river from Omaha, Des Moines, part of central Iowa, Cedar Rapids, Davenport over by Dubuque. These are places with higher populations and those higher populated places with higher incomes, quite frankly, those are the places where people voted for Mitt Romney. For Mitt Romney, and that's why he managed to take the state by a very, very slim margin. The middle of the state, that was definitely, definitely territory that was Santorum territory, territory held by Mike Huckabee four years ago. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thanks.

Let's get right to our political panel for some analysis of that. We have Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst, editorial director of "The National Journal," Jamal Simmon is a former DNC communications adviser and national Democratic editor for GoVote.com, Alex Castellanos is a Republican consultant and CNN political contributor. I'm cutting down on all of that since our last talk this morning.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: OK. Winner, yet really it's more like squeaker-byer of what happened.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: An election in which the margin of victory was than probably the margin of error in counting.

Look, I think what happened last night is Mitt Romney essentially stood in place 2008. He largely held his vote from 2008, didn't really expand it, but that was enough to get slightly ahead in a very fractured field. This result in Iowa reshuffled the cast, basically reaffirmed the Republican race.

O'BRIEN: Which is Rick Santorum?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, it's that Mitt Romney has his piece of the party. He did well with voters who are not evangelicals, 38 percent, voters that are not members of the Tea Party. Only 14 percent among evangelicals and those strong Tea Party voters once again as we've seen in polls all year did not entirely unify. Santorum got the lion's share, not as much as Mike Huckabee did four years ago.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about turnout numbers. People predicted it would be a huge turnout and talk about frustration and also that could lead people to go to the polls, and we didn't see a giant jump up from 2008.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, we didn't. And when you see that large and undecided turnout right before an election, it tells you something. It tells you that they haven't found someone to love, and that's what happened in this election. It's like saying, hey, I want to go to the movies. I just don't know which movie I want to the see. It doesn't work that way.

O'BRIEN: If this is the environment and the contest started, who is the winner? Is it Barack Obama?

JAMAL SIMMONS, FORMER DNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think it is President Obama. Look at what happened last night. I was on the phone with a friend of mine's dad who lives in Iowa, Republican voter, who said I don't like enough of these guys to show up at a caucus. We saw that. Not a big turnout over 2008. Less voters came out then than for president Obama. After six, seven years of campaigning, millions of dollar, Mitt Romney got the same number of voters at last time. I think there's a little fragility there. You see the working class county towns around the Massachusetts border, New Hampshire, he's got a working class message talking about manufacturing jobs. Mitt Romney is a finance guy. Rick Santorum is talking about manufacturing jobs.

O'BRIEN: We have graphic that shows the differentiation between who voted. Look at people who made $50,000 or more, Mitt Romney had the voters. $50,000 and less it was Rick Santorum.

BROWNSTEIN: And Ron Paul in this case. Look, the composition of the Republican primary, the Republican electorate is changing. It's different than it used to be. Look at education. In 2008, 51 percent of the total vote in the Republican primary were non-college voters, working class voters, 49 percent college educated. We've seen Democratic primaries repeatedly divided along this line with an upscale candidate and down scale candidate. We call it the wine track and the beer track.

O'BRIEN: That's before Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party?

BROWNSTEIN: Let me finish. Usually Republican races have not fallen along those lines but there's a real possibility you will see that class divide in the Republican Party, because Mitt Romney is a very strong candidate for the upper middle class Republicans. They relate to him as a manager and business guy. He's struggled more with the blue collar components. And Rick Santorum is doing both cultural conservative and economic nationalism aimed directly at those voters.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the fourth place, Newt Gingrich. He's already out of town. But let me play a little clip of what he said. He's mad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Whether this party wants a Reagan conservative, who helped change Washington in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and helped change Washington in the 1990s as speaker of the House, somebody who is into changing Washington, or we want a Massachusetts moderate who, in fact, will be pretty good at managing the decay, but has given no evidence in his years of Massachusetts of any ability to change the culture or change the political structure or change the government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Newt Gingrich in this race.

SIMMONS: Gingrich is Gingrich. It's bound to happen.

CASTELLANOS: No more Mr. Nice Guy is the story about Newt Gingrich. But this is the best scenarios that could happen for Mitt Romney in the worst way. He got what he wanted.

O'BRIEN: Not sure I'm following you. What does that mean? CASTELLANOS: He got what he wanted. He didn't get Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich as a primary opponent. He got Rick Santorum, which is someone he this, we can beat this guy. He has flaws.

O'BRIEN: Super PAC. And all of this.

CASTELLANOS: Now Rick Perry who was going to take on Santorum, going negative against Santorum is gone from the process. So all of a sudden Santorum gets to run loose. But he's got a bulldog on this tail now with Newt Gingrich, who's going to go after Mitt Romney --

O'BRIEN: So Rick Santorum doesn't have to go negative?

CASTELLANOS: Right.

O'BRIEN: He can be magic blue collar crowd and Newt Gingrich can be his wing man in attacking Mitt Romney?

BROWNSTEIN: Clearly what's going to happen.

CASTELLANOS: He's a man unleashed with nothing left to lose. His path to the nomination is doubtful. The same guy who said a month ago, it's inevitable that I'm going to win this thing. Now it's almost impossible --

O'BRIEN: He's mad.

BROWNSTEIN: And Gingrich will divide the voters resistance to Romney. In one hand help Santorum tactically. The county votes, probably does what Romney wants, further split that portion of the party most skeptical of him.

O'BRIEN: We're going to take a short break. Stick around, because I love this part, which is parsing the stacks and stacks of statistics we have to look at. Ahead on STARTING POINT behind the scenes of the Iowa caucuses. We're talk about how difficult it was to finally settle on one candidate.

And Mitt Romney fresh off his razor tight win joins us live. That's all ahead on STARTING POINT. Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: And now with Iowa out of the way, the race turns its attention to New Hampshire and South Carolina. With six days until New Hampshire there isn't time for a breather. We have reporters standing by in the next two critical battlegrounds. Dan Lothian live for us in Manchester, New Hampshire and Dave Mattingly live in Aiken, South Carolina. Good morning, guys. What' what's going to be happening as we look ahead?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, looking ahead here in New Hampshire, this is the next big test for the Republican presidential hopefuls. In a state where Mitt Romney has had a large double-digit lead over his opponents here for quite some time, the reason is because he's well-known in this state. Not only does he own a second home here, he was the former governor of this state right on the border here of Massachusetts, but also he ran in 2008, came in second place here.

And so people didn't have to get to know Mitt Romney. They knew him well, and so he has continued consistently been having a strong showing in the polls.

The big question now is, will Senator Santorum be able to get a bounce off of his impressive showing in Iowa here in New Hampshire? I was at his headquarters here last night, and his supporters who were very energized do believe that this will certainly help their candidate as he comes here and gets a chance to essentially re- introduce himself to New Hampshire voters.

And if you look at the early polling, and I should point out that this is just those who have been watching, or were watching the Iowa caucuses, all of the numbers for all of the candidates stayed the same, but when you look at Santorum's numbers compared to early December, to those who were watching last night, he's gone from 5 percent to 10 percent.

So already it does show that at least there's some movement there. A little bounce coming out of his impressive showing in Iowa. Of course, his supporters hoping that that will continue, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Dan Lothian for us. Dan, thanks.

We're going to be heading to New Hampshire as well right after we wrap the show this morning.

Let's go straight (ph) now to Aiken, South Carolina. Seventeen days to go before the primary there, David Mattingly. Rick Perry was supposed to be visiting with you there and now he says he's heading back to Texas to think things out, which is usually what they say right before they drop out of the race, right?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And the big headline here, of course, is not what's happening in South Carolina today, it's what's not happening.

Rick Perry was supposed to be here in Aiken today. He was going to be coming to South Carolina as his land of second chances. He was hoping to restart his campaign and get his candidacy back on track here, almost completely ignoring campaigning in New Hampshire in the process. But instead he's back in Texas this morning re-assessing his campaign.

And at this point, even the chairman of the GOP here in South Carolina was quoted yesterday saying that this state is still wide open. Everyone watching Iowa seeing how close it was there. Everyone knowing that Romney is going to do well in New Hampshire. No one ready to say exactly who has the upper hand in this state.

Rick Santorum's showing in Iowa could help him very much here with the social conservatives. He's going to be positioning himself as the candidate who is speaking to the true conservatives in the Republican Party.

Mitt Romney going to be positioning himself as the one who has the best chance to beat President Obama in the general election, and, of course, this state went through a lot of trouble to move their primary up ahead of Florida after that state moved their primary up so that South Carolina could continue to have the first vote in the south to set the tone for the rest of this campaign.

And South Carolina voters this morning, Soledad, are waking up to find out they are exactly in the position they wanted to be in after New Hampshire to possibly be the ones to point a finger at the true front-runner in this campaign.

O'BRIEN: Everybody will be watching there. All right, David Mattingly for us this morning. Thanks, David.

Still to come on STARTING POINT this morning, the margin, just eight votes. It's a win, though, just the same for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor will join us live straight ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

Over 120,000 Iowans caucused last night. Once every ballot was counted, just eight votes separated Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. In the days before the caucuses, more than 40 percent, about half of the voters admitted that they could be persuaded to change their minds.

Last night, I got complete access to the caucuses in Clive, Iowa, suburb of Des Moines. They have two precincts reporting their voters were struggling right to the very finish, literally minutes before the vote, they were still trying to figure it out.

With me this morning, two Iowans -- four Iowans. I can't count because they're in front of me, who cast their votes last night. We have Dr. Christi Taylor. She was also running the caucuses. Jeff Westendorf is with us. Melanie Taylor is Dr. Taylor's daughter. And Brett Wittmus, on the end there, as well.

Nice to see all of you this morning. Thanks for getting up early, because I know it was a late night for all of us.

Dr. Taylor --

DR. CHRISTI TAYLOR, CAUCUS CHAIR, WEST DES MOINES: Good morning.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Christi, good morning. Fill me in. The sense I got last night from people, undecided, energized to be there but frustrated at the same time. Is that a fair description?

C. TAYLOR: I think that's pretty fair.

O'BRIEN: Why? C. TAYLOR: People were excited about change. They're excited about the vote and I think the possibility of having a new leader in the country. So they're very excited about that.

But at the same time, a little bit frustrated that maybe everything they wanted wasn't present in one single candidate.

O'BRIEN: You are an internist. What issue is not being discussed enough in detail in your mind?

C. TAYLOR: In my mind, the details on health care in the new plan. Everyone says we're going to repeal Obamacare. I don't think that's specific enough. We can't simply say that we're going to repeal Obamacare and then not have a plan.

So what do you want to do about our national health care? We need to be specific on how we want to provide care for people in this country and yet not go broke.

O'BRIEN: Jeff, when we talked to you last night, you were undecided until literally kind of seconds before you had to make the vote. Why were you undecided? What was the issue for you that was a struggle?

JEFF WESTENDORF, VOTED FOR RON PAUL: Well, I think you have to weight the economic policies with the social policies and, you know, economically, that's where I want the focus to be. I think we need to shrink the size of government drastically. I think we have to address major reforms I think we have to address Social Security issues.

I think we have a younger generation that's going to end up paying the costs for past generations.

O'BRIEN: Who did you end up voting for last night?

WESTENDORF: I end up voting for Ron Paul because I believe in his libertarian views. I believe less government is better and I think he's the only candidate that I see that has a radical approach to the economic issues, and I don't mean radical as in a negative, but I mean that as, he has a broad approach that really will slash government. And that's what I think we need in this country.

O'BRIEN: Melanie, Ron Paul's been speaking to a lot of young people. You are 20 years old. Is he your candidate as well?

MELANIE TAYLOR, VOTED FOR MITT ROMNEY: No. I voted for Romney.

O'BRIEN: And why?

M. TAYLOR: Honestly, it came down to executive experience and it also came down to electability. I think Romney has the opportunity to really bring in those moderate voters. You know, Santorum was a close second for myself, but his electability and his executive experience I think falls a little short of Romney's.

O'BRIEN: Do you guys get the sense there's a change in the GOP? I know Jeff, you've spoken about this. What's -- do you feel a shift, or a tug maybe is a better way to put it?

WESTENDORF: Well, I think there is a divide in the GOP. But I think the divide it's healthy. I think the debate is healthy in the country and I think we should -- we should have a robust debate.

O'BRIEN: And that debate is between what and what?

WESTENDORF: I believe the debate is between the social conservatives in our party and the economic conservatives in our party. And I think that debate has been ongoing for -- for many decades.

O'BRIEN: Brett, I want to ask you a question about who you end up supporting last night?

BRETT WITTMUS, VOTED FOR RICK PERRY: I ended up supporting Perry.

O'BRIEN: Rick Perry came and gave a great speech. I was there. It was a good speech to the crowd. It got enthusiastic applause, did badly, though, in the polls.

What happens now that your candidate, you know, he's one of those I'm going home to rethink things, which is code for I'd probably will be dropping out of the race later on today. What do you do now?

WITTMUS: We'll just see how things go. See who ends up getting nominated and if I will choose to support them or not, because I don't know. It just depends.

O'BRIEN: What is your biggest concern about the candidates as they move forward and as this whole entire thing moves off of Iowa and moves to New Hampshire?

C. TAYLOR: I'd like to hear more than just sound bites. I'd like to hear specifics when they talk about their plans for health care, for taxes, for jobs. I'd really like to hear specifically how they plan to solve these serious problems in our country.

WESTENDORF: I would like to like hear more about foreign policy. You know, this is a dangerous world we live in now and I think we need to have more specifics about how President Paul, President Santorum or a President Romney will make those decisions in the Oval Office when it comes to national security. That's the first and foremost responsibility the president has.

O'BRIEN: There are many people who say, frankly every four year, does Iowa really matter, you know? Goes first. What does it really all mean?

Do you think that this headline in the Des Moines register, the eight-vote difference has made Iowa matter and said, yes, it does, or do you think it's saying, really, now everyone's focused on New Hampshire and that's where -- where what matters is happening?

C. TAYLOR: This shows exactly why Iowa matters, because we take our politics seriously. We are very keenly interested in and we truly want a better candidate. This shows the difference between people who just have economic at heart versus social issues and the debate back and forth between the GOP Party. This really brings those two sides of the Republican Party to light.

O'BRIEN: Well, I appreciate -- oh, go ahead.

WESTENDORF: I think the caucus -- I think the caucus system really shows that. I mean, probably 1,500 people in the hall last night, and with civilized, rational debate and discussion, and you meet your neighbors and you really talk about the issues. That doesn't happen in a primary.

And I think that's what makes Iowa unique and I think Iowans take that responsibility to heart.

O'BRIEN: Well, we appreciate you getting up early, because I was up with y'all last night late. So I know how late you went to bed. Thanks for being with us this morning. Appreciate it.

Still to come, Mitt Romney is going to join us live. I'm going to ask him how it feels to win the Iowa caucuses by, hmm, this much, slimmest margin in history.

And then it's on to New Hampshire and on to South Carolina for the Republican candidates. How the Iowa result could impact those races. We'll take a look at all of that straight ahead on STARTING POINT. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Just about 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time. I'm Soledad O'Brien. Welcome to our new show, which is called STARTING POINT.

We are live this morning once again at the Waveland Cafe in Des Moines, Iowa. We're in breaking news mode this morning because, of course, we're talking about that stunning Iowa vote.

Ahead in our next half hour, we're going to talk to the winner, sweet buy with an eight-point lead. Mitt Romney looks like he's a lock in New Hampshire if you're looking at polls there.

He's already shifting his focus in fact to Florida where Newt Gingrich could be a very big factor for him. We're going to talk about that this morning.

Also, we're looking live and forward to next two critical battlegrounds, New Hampshire and also South Carolina. How could the polls change as some candidates are expected to drop out?

Next up for the Republican presidential candidates, New Hampshire, as I said, and South Carolina, and while a good showing in Iowa helps a candidate's momentum, they're now playing for actual delegates. These are not caucuses. These are primaries.

Mark McKinnon is a contributor to "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast." He's also a former McCain adviser and he joins us this morning.

Nice to see you. Let's talk, in fact, about Senator McCain who has said he will be endorsing Mitt Romney later today, which means that, that's, I guess, already the endorsement. What's the impact of that going to be for Mitt Romney?

MARK MCKINNON, CONTRIBUTOR, "NEWSWEEK" AND "THE DAILY BEAST": That's good stroke for Romney. McCain is very popular in New Hampshire. They've had their differences over the years. So that's a nice way to come out of this Iowa confab into New Hampshire with some momentum for Romney.

You know, Iowa has really clarified the field. We have now three clear losers with Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich, and three clear winners with Santorum, Romney and Paul. So the question is, what happens in New Hampshire?

The problem for Romney is that he's got very high expectations. Everybody expects him to win and win big. So the real story out of New Hampshire may be, who runs second or third there?

And remember that Jon Huntsman has been camping out there just waiting for Romney to come and Gingrich is now very unhappy camper and is going to be attacking Romney in New Hampshire with the help of the union leader out there. So it's going to get interesting.

O'BRIEN: Well, here's what Rick Santorum said about this upcoming endorsement from Senator McCain. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I commend Governor Romney for getting his endorsement, but I'm not surprised by it. I mean, you know, John is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in with Newt's -- excuse me, with Mitt's view of the world. And I, you know, I wish him the very best and, again, I have nothing but respect for John McCain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So the key word for me there was moderate, right? He's highlighting. Well, he's a moderate. What does that mean that he's signalling that Mitt Romney is going to have to do to try to steal some of the thunder from Santorum? Does he have to move to the right now more?

MCKINNON: Well, I mean, that's where Santorum has some hope because he's really consolidating the social conservatives now behind him and positioning Romney as the moderate.

So Santorum has a lot of potential, particularly in South Carolina now, with Perry likely to drop out, Bachmann likely to drop out. So Santorum can consolidate all of that in South Carolina.

And maybe exceed expectations in New Hampshire with Huntsman taking some of the independent vote out of New Hampshire as well. So the race is really clearly dividing into social conservatives behind Santorum, economic and establishment conservatives behind Romney.

O'BRIEN: OK, and if you look at people who describes themselves as Evangelicals in this particular race last night, 58 percent of the people who came out last night described themselves that way.

And that's very close to the 60 percent in 2008. So what do you read into that number? People had said it was going to be probably, you know, significantly lower, and it wasn't.

MCKINNON: Well, they've always been the bedrock of the Republican Party. They will continue to be, particularly in South Carolina and as the race goes south. That's where it's a stumbling block for Mitt Romney because Rick Santorum has very strong socially conservative credentials.

The only real surprise is that Rick Santorum is a surprise because he is a very credible candidate with the social conservatives, has been for a long time, has a long record. He's a very disciplined campaigner, very focused.

He's been through a lot of tough campaigns, and one in states where it's tough to win as a conservative. So Rick Santorum should be taken very seriously, and I think that while he doesn't have a lot of organization or a lot of money, momentum and messages are what's key in today's presidential politics.

So he may have a pretty good roll here for a while, and he's got a great story with blue collar voters.

O'BRIEN: Well, you know, let's talk about that. Those blue collar voters, and in an environment where almost every single day, there's some conversation about "Occupy Wall Street" or "Occupy Des Moines" here.

When the Tea Party -- people who really are feeling sort of left out of the mainstream, is that going to be a huge opportunity for Santorum and a huge problem for someone like Mitt Romney who is a wealthy businessman with credentials in that area?

MCKINNON: Exactly right, Soledad. The reason this race has shifted towards Obama, whereas, you know, a few months ago looked like Republicans could run away with this race next year.

What's happened, the reason, the gap closed because President Obama has fixed on a very compelling narrative about the middle class squeeze versus the elites, and Mitt Romney no matter what he does is going to be positioned as an elite.

Rick Santorum has a very real blue collar background, can relate to middle class voters in a way that Mitt Romney never can. So that's where he's got a lot of potential, and that's you know -- white, middle class, blue collar workers is where the core of the Republican Party has been recently over history. So Santorum's got a real opportunity to go after those voters.

O'BRIEN: Mark McKinnon for us this morning. Nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us. We're going to turn right to our panelists. Ron Brownstein is back with us and Alex Castellanos and Jamal Simmons.

He was talking blue collar and that is a problem for President Obama. Those blue -- white, blue collar economically challenged at this point, as a lot of people in America are. How big a problem is this for President Obama if he have someone like Rick Santorum who's really being embraced by them?

SIMMONS: Well, I don't think with Santorum it's that big of a problem for President Obama when they get into in a general election.

Because then start talking about all these social issues that matter, abortion on the table. There's some of the things Rick Santorum said this week, dog whistles, I don't want to give African- Americans money, that sort of thing.

O'BRIEN: That's a very loose quote, by the way.

SIMMONS: Well, it was --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exactly.

SIMMONS: Pretty close.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could be a dog whistle, talking about Rick Santorum, by the way.

SIMMONS: So I think -- there will be some white working class voters responsive to that, but the president has done a pretty good job of finding where he needs to be when he needs to be there and finding the voters to win. So I have a lot of confidence in Obama.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think one of the vulnerabilities of Barack Obama has is that he has morphed himself into an elitist from the guy who was bringing all America together.

He's more Harvard now than he was Chicago streets. He's a man surrounded by experts. He talks about America in the third person a lot, "they." and I think you see a lot pictures, in the negative commercials against him now with Barack Obama, his chin raised looking down his nose and that resonates in focus groups.

What does that mean? We put this question on surveys a lot in campaigns, who would you rather have a beer with? Out of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the guy most likely, I think, in this to have a beer with is the blue collar guy, Rick Santorum.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But a slight dissenting note. Barack Obama is in a struggle with blue collar whites no matter who the Republican nominee is, 58 percent of them voted against him in 2008, 63 percent non-college whites voted Republican in 2010 in the congressional elections. Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney, those voters are probably going to be predominantly Republican. The question I think more for Republicans is, who can carve into Obama's strength upper middle class white voters? Suburban, more socially moderate voters. Santorum has a lot more trouble there.

His last re-election in 2006, he lost the four suburban counties outside Philadelphia, which were once Republican bedrock. He lost them by a 175,000 votes.

So he is potentially a very strong candidate where Republican are already strong. And he has this greatest weakness where they have the most need to improve I think in 2008 in order to beat Barack Obama.

CASTELLANOS: But you're getting a signal that maybe Rick Santorum has learned something about this. Because he's not running to South Carolina like Rick Perry was intending to do, like Michele Bachmann was intending to do.

He's going to New Hampshire to talk economics instead of South Carolina, to talk social issues. He was very inclusive last night. Last night, he presented himself as a candidate who wanted everybody to make progress together. He was not the S versus M.

SIMMONS: -- for Latinos. Rick Santorum's going to have to figure out a way, or any Republican, to cut into the president's appeal, particularly in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, those states, which in the president's math mean a lot more to him now than places maybe like West Virginia and maybe some parts of Ohio.

O'BRIEN: We're looking down the road a little bit. I'm going to ask you to stick around. Still to come this morning on STARTING POINT, the man who made history in Iowa. With the tightest margin of victory in caucus history, Mitt Romney joins us live in just a moment. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back. Obviously, it was a very big night for the Romney camp. They eked out a victory over a late-surging Rick Santorum when the latest poll showing Romney with a commanding lead in New Hampshire, he's starting to focus on President Obama. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Four years ago tonight, he was giving a victory celebration speech here in Des Moines, and he'd been going across the state making all sorts of promises. The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I've ever seen in my life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: And Mitt Romney joins us live from Des Moines this morning. It's nice to see you, sir. Thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.

Congratulations. How are you feeling, though, about a lead that was really this big, an absolute squeeze-by?

ROMNEY: Well, I'm actually feeling terrific, because, as you know, we were well behind several weeks ago. I don't think many people gave us a shot of beating Speaker Gingrich. We obviously won last night, although it was very, very close. Obviously, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul also had big nights. We all come out of Iowa a lot stronger.

O'BRIEN: You were one point behind, but Rick Santorum was way, way, way behind and he managed to close the gap, and even then some. What's the strategy as you move forward? Is it focusing on President Obama or is it focusing on Rick Santorum, who seems to be the guy with all the momentum at this moment?

ROMNEY: I continue to believe the right place to focus is on President Obama. Of course, people are going to ask us about the differences on our positions on issues and backgrounds and so forth. But, really, if we talk about what the American people want to hear, is how we're going to be different than President Obama when it comes to getting the economy going, preserving America's security abroad and making sure we rein in the scale of the federal government. So those will be the issues I think that really are the focus of the campaign over the next several months.

O'BRIEN: And very important issues, of course, to conservatives. When you look at some of the polling -- I'll read the Iowa caucus entrance poll from last night. When asked the question, which is the candidate who can defeat President Obama, if that's most important issue to you, you're way ahead. 49 percent of the people voted for you who care about that issue. But when you ask them, who's a true conservative -- let me show you this number, because this is a terrible number for you, sir. You come in at 1 percent. If those issues you just listed, if those issues important to conservatives, how much trouble are you in on that front?

ROMNEY: Well, actually, you know, I lead on polls from those who call themselves conservative. Look at a place like New Hampshire where my record is understood pretty darn well, because I, of course, came from the state next door. I've got great support from conservatives, from Tea Party members, from evangelicals in New Hampshire. You know, I start off -- you may recall also four years ago that Mike Huckabee and I were the two conservatives in the race. So I've got conservative credentials. But I'm going to do my very best to communicate my vision for the country going forward and I think conservatives will rally around that effort.

O'BRIEN: I noticed last night when you were talking about people moving forward in to New Hampshire you left Newt Gingrich off that list. When you hear from him, he's very much on the list in his own mind. He sounds like he's going to be on the attack. How worried are you about what Newt Gingrich is going to be doing as he moves forward to New Hampshire as well? ROMNEY: Well, I understand that the speaker is disappointed and, of course, he goes on with his campaign, as do others. I think there were three that got a real boost last night, but that doesn't mean the others are gone. They can come back and have a resurgent campaign.

And I understand that they'll be a lot of attacks coming my way. That's the nature of this process, but I have broad shoulders. Heck, if you can't handle the attacks at this stage, just wait until the White House and the DNC really launch their attacks. It's going to be blistering but fundamentally turn back to the president and say, Mr. President, you failed. You failed to get this economy going. That was job one. And I understand the economy. I'm going to make it work for the American people.

O'BRIEN: What's your strategy now as far as it goes with evangelicals? When you look at the polling numbers about how evangelicals, who make up, I don't have to tell you, a huge portion of the Republican Party, you have 14 percent of their support. That has got to be a challenging number. So what's the plan? You look at that number and you say, OK, what's the plan? My strategy with evangelicals is -- what?

ROMNEY: Well, I continue to talk about my message. I got, what, 24 percent overall in Iowa. I got 14 percent among evangelicals. there were seven viable candidates on the field. Some had the endorsement of evangelical leaders here that didn't include me. So -- but I'm pleased with, for instance, I look at a place like New Hampshire. I think I'm leading among evangelical voters there. The last time around, I led with evangelical voters in Michigan.

So I'll do fine with the different groups in this country as long as I continue to talk about my message in getting America stronger, getting our economy going, shrinking the size of the government and holding firm on the principles of freedom and opportunity that made the country the hope of the earth.

O'BRIEN: I want to ask you a question. Everybody's looking at New Hampshire and, of course, South Carolina. I want to look at Florida. Of course, in Florida, you have a large number of Latino voters. And you've been very clear that, given the opportunity, you will veto the Dream Act. You know immigration is a big issue for Latino voters. When you tackle that, when you say something like that very publicly and very strongly, are you essentially handing those voters off to President Obama?

ROMNEY: You know, the Hispanic-American voters I speak with are overwhelmingly concerned with opportunity. They want good jobs in America and rising incomes. If they want a president who is going to talk to them about a handout or more benefits for free, they got that guy. If they, instead, want a president who understands the economy, who has lived in the economy and understands what it takes to help people get jobs, again, then I'm that person. I think that is the issue that is deciding the 2012 election.

The idea of enforcing our immigration laws, I think people, whether they're Hispanic or non-Hispanic, I think people agree that we ought to enforce immigration laws, in part, to secure legal immigration as an important pathway to the future of this country. I like legal immigration. I want more legal immigration. But illegal immigration has to be stopped to make legal immigration possible.

O'BRIEN: I'm going to open it up and introduce it to our panel here, Ron Brownstein, sitting right next to me, and Alex Castellanos as well is across from me, and Jamal Simmons joining me, as well.

Ron, you have a question?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST & NATIONAL JOURNAL: Yes.

A quick question, Governor Romney. Good morning. Ron Brownstein, from "National Journal."

ROMNEY: Good morning.

BROWNSTEIN: You often criticize President Obama and saying he pursues policies that manipulate the market. I want to ask you one of -- Senator Santorum's ideas. He proposes a special tax cut for companies that are manufacturers, completely eliminating corporate income taxes on manufacturers and, thus, they would pay a much lower tax rate than other corporations. Do you think that also qualifies as manipulating the market? Would you be better off letting the market decide where those dollars should flow?

ROMNEY: I do want to make sure we stimulate all the sectors of our economy. I'm not looking just to stimulate just one. I don't want to pick one winner and one loser. America has been very successful in some of the new elements of the new economy. And some of the nations of Europe, for instance, which have tried to hang on to their old base, have found that their productivity level and GDP per capita has not been able to keep up with America.

So I'm not going to try and guide which way this economy goes. I want to make sure there's a level playing field here. We bring down our tax rates overall. But I'm not going to try to pick out the one part of our economy that some would think would be the favorite.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, POLITICAL MEDIA CONSULTANT: Governor Romney, Alex here. I got a question for you.

ROMNEY: Hi, Alex.

CASTELLANOS: You won by eight votes last night. Are you going to call them and thank them?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: I've got to find those guys, one by-one. Thank them for that landslide, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

CASTELLANOS: Landslide. I saw in the "Des Moines Register" poll that it said that 78 percent of Republicans thought you would be the candidate most likely to bring change. That is something that was different than last time. What is the one thing you think means the most change in this country and what would you do about it?

ROMNEY: I think President Obama has instituted a policy, which is the most anti-investment, anti-entrepreneur, anti-small business, anti-jobs philosophy and strategy we've ever seen in this country. And I would get America to, once again, be the best place in the world for enterprise and job growth. That's probably point one. Point two is related to it, and that is he has simply grown government way beyond the bounds of reasonableness. He's added 135,000 new federal jobs. The deficit is completely out of control. You're going to have to make America attractive for jobs, and part of that is shrinking the size of the federal government.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Good morning, Governor Romney. This is Jamal Simmons. I'm a Democratic editor at Globo.com. I just want to ask you a question about the Tea Party element in the Republican coalition. I have met a few of those folks here this past week and there seems to be a lot of anger towards President Obama and some questions about trust with you. Are you worried at all about a Tea Party challenge and -- if you were to win a nomination, are you worried about a tea-party backed challenger as a third party challenger as you run against President Obama?

ROMNEY: You know, Tea Partiers and other Republicans really share very similar views with regards to the need to scale down the size of the federal government, to finally balance our budget. And those are very motivating features for the Tea Party. I also think they believe that a continuation of President Obama and his policies would be devastating to the future of the country. So I believe Tea Partiers will come together with other Republicans and will support our nominee and will make sure that we replace Barack Obama. I think that's the highest priority, whether you're a more traditional Republican or a Tea Party Republican.

A lot of independents feel the same way. And, by the way, so do a lot of Democrats. I speak with Democrats almost every day, who come up to me and say, look, I'm a Democrat, I'm going to vote for you, I'm really frustrated with what the president's doing to this country. So I don't think you'll see division and splintering. I think you'll see us come together.

O'BRIEN: Governor, Newt Gingrich, talking about Ron Paul, has said that he thinks that Paul is stunningly dangerous. How would you characterize the person who is now number three in this very, very tight race as you all move to New Hampshire?

ROMNEY: Well, I think you can't ignore the fact that he's connected with a lot of people here in Iowa and in other places across the country. People are very concerned, again, about the scale of government and that tends to be the heart of his message.

Look, I disagree with Ron Paul on a number of issues, particularly those related to foreign affairs and national security. But don't ignore Ron Paul. He's done a heck of a job and, obviously, in a near three-way tie here in Iowa, he's showing a lot of strength.

O'BRIEN: When you look at the vote by age, people who are 17 to 29, it's Ron Paul who got 48 percent of those voters. You are low in that category at 13 percent. Even Rick Santorum beat you on that front. So how do you get those voters who clearly are Ron Paul voters? Is that going to be a big problem for you?

ROMNEY: Well, you know, I think there's a natural tendency on the part of some who are young to be attracted to Congressman Paul's views that we should not be involved internationally, that we should become more isolationist.

My own view of the reading of history is that when America has been isolationist, we have seen bad things happen in the world that ultimately result in America getting dragged into very bad things -- wars. I believe a very strong America with a very strong military is the best ally peace has ever known. And I want a stronger military so we don't have to go to war. So I think these are things that we can communicate to young people.

And, frankly, the number one issue I hear from young people on campuses these days, who can get me a good job when I graduate? And there's no question there, I'm the guy who has the experience in the private sector to know how to get this economy going, again, and create jobs for young people and people across the age spectrum.

O'BRIEN: Governor Mitt Romney joining us this morning.

Congratulations due to you this morning, sir. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Soledad. Good to be with you.

O'BRIEN: You bet. Thank you.

Still ahead, Ron Paul will join us live to talk about his third- place finish in Iowa, his campaign plan for New Hampshire and then beyond New Hampshire.

And President Obama took it on the chin last night and then, again, minutes ago, from Mitt Romney, but last night, he called him a failed president. We'll get the Democratic response from DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)