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New GOP Poll Numbers; Outrage Grows Over Mississippi Pardons; Ron Paul's Heir Apparent; Gas Prices Rise With Iran Tensions; Bad Memories, Bitterness Over Romney Past; Pardoned Murderer Talks To CNN

Aired January 13, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: a new big picture of the Republican race for the White House. We have a poll that is just being released right now. Who do the GOP voters want to be their presidential nominee?

Also, bad memories and bitterness among some South Carolina voters who say Mitt Romney's former company cost them their jobs.

Plus, a CNN exclusive. We talked to one of the convicted killers pardoned by Mississippi's governor. We're going to hear his reaction to the outrage over his release.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mitt Romney, the clear front-runner in a brand-new CNN/ORC poll out just now. Take a look at this, Romney with a double-digit lead in a national survey asking Republican voters their choice for the nominee. But look at the battle for second place. Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum are all in a statistical tie, each getting between 15 and 18 percent.

Let's get some more with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, who is taking a closer look at all of this.

He's rising nationally. At least it looks like that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it is, and he's rising at Newt Gingrich's expense.

Take a look. We compared the numbers you just showed with the numbers from December. What a difference a month makes. You look at Romney in December, 28 percent, now 34, up six. Newt Gingrich down 10 points, and again Paul has been pretty consistent. Santorum almost quadrupled his support.

I think the big news here, Wolf, to me is that Mitt Romney has broken through that 25 percent, 28 percent level with Republicans, now has pushed into the mid-30 range. That probably means what we're seeing in this national poll of Republicans is it reflects what's gone on in Iowa and New Hampshire.

As I always say, nothing succeeds like success. Mitt Romney has been very successful. And clearly Republicans nationwide are now looking at him more and more as the eventual nominee. BLITZER: How important is the whole issue of electability?

BORGER: Very, very important. We have seen that in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And you also see it in our new numbers. Take a look at this. When we asked Republicans who has the best chance of beating Obama in November, now you see Romney up to 55 percent -- Gingrich, again at the expense of Newt Gingrich, who is down. Santorum rises considerably, but only to 9 percent.

Another takeaway from our poll, Wolf, is that about seven out of 10 Republicans told us that they would rather vote for somebody who can beat Barack Obama, as opposed to somebody who just agrees with them on all the issues. So again, that electability is so, so important to Mitt Romney. People believe he can beat Barack Obama.

BLITZER: He does have some weaknesses, though.

BORGER: He does.

BLITZER: Let's dig deeper into these numbers. What are his weaknesses?

BORGER: What's interesting about Mitt Romney is that people like him, but they really can't relate to him.

And we asked this question that we always ask in presidential campaigns. Who cares the most about people like you? And you see the results here. Ron Paul does the best. Romney, of course, a very, very close second.

Rick Santorum, who is the closest thing to a populist in this race, does very well and then you have Gingrich and the rest. So very important that Mitt Romney be able to kind of allow people to believe he understands their plight, which is why the issue of Bain Capital is potentially so dangerous for him, because if he is portrayed as a corporate raider who doesn't care about people who gets laid off, who doesn't care about a 9.9 percent unemployment rate in the state of South Carolina, that could be very damaging to him.

He has to be able to tell people, as Bill Clinton used to say, I feel your pain.

BLITZER: I feel your pain. Hold on for one second, because there is something happening right now.

This is just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. A federal judge has just ruled -- and let me be precise -- against four of the Republican presidential candidates who were suing to get their names on the Virginia primary ballot.

In the ruling, the judge says Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry waited too long to file their claims. As you know, they didn't meet the deadline, 10,000 signatures they needed all certified, notified, or whatever. Didn't happen. They went to court and now this federal judge says the state of Virginia is right in not -- the Republican Party basically -- allowing you on the ballot.

BORGER: This is very good news of course for Mitt Romney and for Ron Paul, both of whom have good organizations, who got the signatures they needed.

This is embarrassing, quite frankly, for someone like Newt Gingrich, who actually lives in the state of Virginia, who made the point of telling journalists we're going to get on the ballot in Virginia and then did not, took it to court and lost. There are a lot of people in Virginia, Republicans, who say well then our primary is not going to be as important as it would have been otherwise, because, of course, you're not going to have a full slate of candidates, but in the end Mitt Romney really benefits from this.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, the other guys, they have got immediate problems in South Carolina and Florida, long before Virginia becomes a problem.


BORGER: Which is on Super Tuesday, March 6.

BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much.

Newt Gingrich is looking ahead to Florida, which holds its primary at the end of the month. And judging be his campaign swing there today, the former speaker is prepared to wage a bloody gloves- off fight for the Sunshine State.

CNN's Jim Acosta caught up with Newt Gingrich in South Florida -- Jim.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just when everybody thought Newt Gingrich was toning down his attacks on Mitt Romney, the former speaker today went nuclear.

(voice-over): Perhaps it was the strong Cuban coffee Newt Gingrich sipped in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. The former speaker served up some tough talk on Mitt Romney's claim of creating 100,000 jobs at the private investment firm Bain Capital.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If he can't stand up today and defend his claim, how will he stand up to Obama in the fall?

ACOSTA: Gingrich seized on this new ad from the Romney campaign that seeks to set the Bain record straight.

NARRATOR: Mitt Romney helped create and ran a company that invested in struggling businesses, grew new ones, and rebuilt old ones, creating thousands of jobs.

ACOSTA: In an interview with CNN, Gingrich laughed at the ad's use of phrase "thousands of jobs," and not 100,000 jobs, as proof Romney isn't telling the truth. (on camera): Do you think he misstated the facts on this issue?

GINGRICH: Yes. Of course he did. You know he did. Now, the question is...


ACOSTA: Are you saying he lied?

GINGRICH: I'm saying that he misstated the facts. He is now himself changing his claim.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But a Romney campaign spokeswoman says the former governor is not backing away from the claim, saying 100,000 is thousands of jobs. And Romney repeated the claim to reporters Thursday.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the record of my experience at Bain is pretty well in the open. It's been reviewed over the years by members of the media. There are a number of businesses that we helped start, which collectively, you can just look on their Web sites, added well over 100,000 jobs.

ACOSTA: The former speaker has come under fire from conservatives over a pro-Gingrich super PAC that savages Romney's record at Bain in a 30-minute movie. The PAC is running clips from the film in South Carolina where Gingrich and Romney are neck and neck in a new poll.

Gingrich admits he's abandoned his pledge to run a positive campaign. His latest Web video compares Romney to failed Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. It even ends with Romney speaking French.

ACOSTA (on camera): You used to say that you would wage a positive campaign. That is obviously out the window. Is it because he attacked you first? Is that what this is?

GINGRICH: Look, when somebody runs $3.5 million of negative ads in Iowa, and I spent three weeks staying totally positive, I asked him to take them off the air, he refused to do it, you either unilaterally disarm and quit, or you decide you're going to match.

ACOSTA: Meanwhile, the former speaker is calling on that pro- Gingrich super PAC to clear up any inaccuracies in that "King of Bain" movie. But that's not enough for the Romney campaign, who is calling Gingrich sad and desperate -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Jim Acosta in South Florida.

President Obama, meanwhile, says he wants to streamline the federal government, and he's proposing some significant changes, but his critics question the election year timing of all of this and the president's motives. Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is joining us now with the details.

What does the president specifically, Dan, want to do?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Wolf, this is a fulfillment of something the president first talked about during his State of the Union address last year.

The president talked today about how there's overlap in agencies within the government, the kind of inefficiency that business leaders, even nonprofit leaders, would not tolerate. So the president is asking Congress for permission to shape things up.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): Like making a New Year's weight loss resolution, President Obama is aiming to slim down a bloated government using a colorful prop to highlight redundancy and inefficiency.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are six departments and agencies focused primarily on business and trade in the federal government. Six. In this case, six is not better than one.

LOTHIAN: The president is asking Congress for consolidation authority, similar to powers last held by former President Ronald Reagan. It would allow him to combine several agencies into one, including the Small Business Administration and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The Commerce Department as we know it would be eliminated.

OBAMA: There's a real opportunity right now for us to fundamentally rethink, reform and remake our government so that it can meet the demands of our time.

LOTHIAN: But some viewed this well-timed opportunities touting as saving $3 billion over 10 years with suspicion.

STUART ROTHENBERG, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT": Any proposal like this is going to be part political, but in a presidential year, you have got to think that politics constitutes a huge part of this announcement by the president. And Republicans are already reacting that way, calling it an election eve conversion by Barack Obama.

LOTHIAN: One of those Republicans is Senator John Cornyn, a member of Senate finance and budget committee. In a written statement, he said -- quote -- "President Obama doesn't have much of a record to back up his newfound enthusiasm election year enthusiasm for limited government."

Similar skepticism from House Speaker John Boehner's office -- quote -- "We hope the president isn't simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach." But Republicans who have long touted the virtues of smaller, more streamlined government are promising to give the president's careful review.

ROTHENBERG: This is hard for the Republicans to oppose in principle. They want more efficient government. They want government to work better for the business community and for the public at large.


LOTHIAN: The president also announced today that he would elevate the Small Business Administration to a Cabinet-level position. This will give small businesses a louder voice during these Cabinet meetings.

And, Wolf, one other point. I did ask a senior aide here at the White House about criticism about the timing of all of this. This official telling me the president is focused on doing his job, on helping small businesses, and that even in this difficult political environment, there's no reason something like this can't get bipartisan support.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian at the White House, thanks very much.

He's Ron Paul's biggest campaign trail cheerleader. I'm talking about his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Some are saying, already, though, that he's one of the presidential ambition guys himself. Stand by for that.

Plus, tensions with Iran could end up impacting your wallet. We're going to explain how.

And one of the Mississippi murderers on the loose after getting pardoned, he speaks exclusively with CNN. You're going to see the interview first right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Congressman Ron Paul's son, the Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, is already a favorite of Tea Party Republicans. But could he follow in his father's footprints and make a run for the White House in 2016?

Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is joining us.

He's an impressive guy, the senator from Kentucky.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, you know, he definitely made a splash, there's no question, the minute he walked in to the United States Senate. You know, there's been a lot of father/son teams in politics, of course, but none quite like Ron and Rand Paul. There's this movement, unlike any other.

And watching them both on the trail, it's clear there's a lot of grooming going on.


BASH (voice-over): It's not unusual for candidates' children to hit the campaign trail.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Please welcome my father, Ron Paul.


BASH: But when Rand Paul stumps for his father, it's different.

RAND PAUL: There's only one candidate who's never been accused of flip flopping.

BASH: He's not only the senator from Kentucky and a Tea Party darling --

RAND PAUL: I got started running as part of the Tea Party movement in 2010, because I was unhappy with Republicans. The Republican Party is an empty vessel unless we imbue it with values.

BASH: Rand Paul is also heir apparent to this libertarian anti- interventionist movement his 76-year-old father spent decades building up.

JOHN SAMPLES, CATO INSTITUTE: There's no doubt that Rand Paul is going to run for president and he's going to run on the Republican side of things someday. The question is not if, it's when.

RAND PAUL: It looks like we have some young people here. There's energy.

BASH: A newcomer to politics himself, Rand Paul rocked the GOP in 2010 by running against the Republican establishment's candidates and winning.

RAND PAUL: I have a message -- we've had come to take our government back.

BASH: Like his father, Rand Paul is unbending in his beliefs, even when it irks his own party. In May, he sought out CNN to rail against the Senate GOP leadership for trying to prevent a vote on one of his amendments to the Patriot Act.

RAND PAUL: They're sending around information to try to convince other Republicans to vote against my amendments.

BASH (on camera): As you know, this is unusual here for a Republican freshman senator to come on and really lash out at his own leadership. Why are you doing that?

RAND PAUL: I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed they don't want to allow debate.

BASH (voice-over): And just this week, he made headlines back home for giving $5,000 of his Senate office budget back to the Treasury. At that press conference, he didn't rule out agreeing to be the GOP's running mate if asked.

RAND PAUL: I am interested in trying to shape the direction and make our country more fiscally conservative, and we'll have to see where it goes. Right now, you know, I'm still supporting that guy from Texas.

BASH: As for Ron Paul, strategists say there's one reason he all but rules out a third-party run.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have no intentions of doing that, no plans, no desire, and flat-out I don't want to.

BASH: It would harm his son Rand's political future.

SAMPLES: That would close the door on Rand Paul ever receiving, or ever doing very well in the Republican nomination.


BASH: Now, the reason for that any Ron Paul run as a third- party candidate would likely take significant votes from the Republican nominee, potentially enough to help reelect Barack Obama in making anyone with the last name Paul a pariah in the GOP

In any event, Wolf, as much as Ron Paul has done to promote the cause of libertarianism, which, of course, he has especially in this election, people watch Rand, and they say that he's watching his father. He's learned from his mistakes and he's more vivacious and savvy politician. Maybe he could even do more for that cause than his father.

BLITZER: His father is doing well. But why isn't he out there campaigning?

BASH: You know, it's very interesting. The answer is we don't know. He went home right after he did one rally in South Carolina, the day after New Hampshire, and he's taken a rest, but he's not going to be -- I think he'll be off the trail for 3 1/2 days. Someone like Ron Paul, they are really interesting. Another example of how he's different from everybody else, he has such a following and such an Internet presence, he doesn't need to go shake hands the other way candidates do to get votes.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

BASH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Pain at the pump, and Iran is partly to blame. As gas and oil prices spike, all eyes are on the Islamic republic.

Lisa Sylvester is joining us with more -- Lisa.


You know, it's usually in the spring and summertime when we see gas prices starting to rise, but this winter, consumers have probably noticed, oil and gas prices are up considerably, this as Iran threatens to block the Strait of Hormuz.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): The national average price for regular unleaded is $3.38 a gallon. That's up 29 cents from a year ago. And the country is on track to hit an average of $4 a gallon by summertime.

PATRICK DEHAAN, GASBUDDY.COM: Oil prices have made significant gains, about 10 percent since Christmas, and gasoline prices, unfortunately tied to the price of oil are now rising rather sharply.

SYLVESTER: What's driving the price increase? Tension between the United States and Iran. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, where more than 30 percent of the world's oil passes through.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran to dial back the rhetoric.

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is an international waterway the United States and others are committed to keeping it open. It's part of the lifeline that keeps oil and gas moving around the world. And it's also important to speak as clearly as we can to the Iranians about the dangers of this kind of prove investigation.

SYLVESTER: Diplomatic efforts to slow Iran's nuclear programs have faltered. In response, the U.S. and European Union have been stepping up sanctions, leading to the new bellicose language from Iranian leaders.

The Strait of Hormuz is only 34 miles wide, shipping lanes run through Iranian territorial waters.

(on camera): Do they have the right to say no more passage to the strait?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): The answer to your last question is no. They have no right to say that. This is international water. This has -- everyone has free access to that. And that has been established for several decades.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): The talk of a possible closure is driving up prices, says Kent Moors, editor of "Oil Energy Investor," and author of the new book, "The Vega Factor."

KENT MOORS, OIL ENERGY INVESTOR: The market now has been governed for some time by futures contracts, which means the contracts that people are buying and selling for future deliveries of oil, upwards to six months out. We now are into oil brinksmanship. Oil brinksmanship is unstable. It's unpredictable, and it's extremely risky.


SYLVESTER: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been in Asia asking Japan and China to help put pressure on Iran to allow nuclear inspectors in. Japan agreed to reduce the amount of oil it imports from Iran, but China still hasn't given a commitment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, good report. Thank you.

Politics getting personal. Attacks on Mitt Romney's executive experience at home with many South Carolina voters.

And a CNN exclusive, we speak to a Mississippi man convicted of murdering his wife, but then pardoned. You're going to hear it first right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including a shocking story about cheating doctors.

Lisa, what's going on?

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

A CNN investigation finds that radiology students have been cheating on exams for years. Here's how it works. Students split up test questions to memorize, then share the questions with the next round the test-takers. Some argue it isn't cheating because they still learn the information. A hundred and thirty-nine doctors were suspended for sharing test questions in 2010.

And John Edwards may have a life-threatening conditioning that could delay his corruption trial. That word comes from court source in North Carolina, citing comments from a federal judge. The judge who spoke with Edwards' cardiologist says the problem is potentially serious if left untreated. Edwards is charged with using campaign money to hide a relationship with his pregnant mistress. The trial was set to begin on January 30th.

And a key suspect in the disappearance of U.S. teenager Natalee Holloway is going to jail. Joran van der Sloot received a 28-year sentence for the murder of a Peruvian woman in 2010. The 24-year-old Dutchman pleaded guilty opening the possibility of a reduced sentence.

And the iPhone is so popular in China, it's dangerous. Take a look here, chaos erupting at a Beijing Apple Store after hundreds of fans camped out all night by the phone, only to be told it was unavailable the next morning. Due to safety concerns, Apple says the phone won't be available in Beijing and Shanghai for the time being.

So quite a popular product there, the iPhone, Wolf.

BLITZER: Take their iPhone seriously over there, very seriously.

All right. Thanks very much, Lisa.

The company he helped found years ago now casting a bit of a shadow over Mitt Romney's campaign.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: While Bain is owning the place, do you see them reinvesting?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, none at all. None at all.


BLITZER: We'll hear from South Carolina voters who have bad memories of Bain Capital.

Also, Senator John McCain on David Letterman's show. He shot a blunt take on his party's race for the White House.

Plus, an exclusive interview with one of the Mississippi killers pardoned by the governor. He talks to CNN about the outrage over his release.


BLITZER: Attacks on Mitt Romney over his venture capitalist past are resonating with some South Carolina voters. For them the name Bain Capital brings bad memories and bitterness. CNN's David Mattingly has more.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the mid '90s when Mitt Romney's Bain Capital was investing in steel, Bain bought this plant in George Town, South Carolina. Steeler workers local president, James Anderson says things did not go well.

(on camera): While Bain is owning the place, do you see any reinvesting?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, they were not investing anything.

MATTINGLY: Was the equipment wearing down?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it was very much so.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Bain's spokesman tells CNN that the claims of no investment in the plant are not true. Sanderson's view is from a downside of Mitt Romney's private sector record on job creation.

(on camera): Were you more or less competitive?

JAMES SANDERSON, PRESIDENT, USW LOCAL 7893: We were less competitive with Bain.

MATTINGLY: Why? SANDERSON: Because they did not have us in a position where we could compete because our equipment was being neglected. We could not do the stuff that needed to be done and had been doing.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Touring a motorcycle dealer in South Carolina, Romney points to Bain's national successes, including Sports Authority and Staples eventually employing thousands in the state. He also acknowledges the failures.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are some businesses that have to be cut back in order to survive and try to make them stronger. And sometimes you're successful at that and sometimes you're not.

MATTINGLY: In George Town, the United Steel Workers union says 50 were laid off and Bain sold the plant in bankruptcy after just four years. And it wasn't the first time Bain exited the state quickly. The firm inked a deal in 1987 to bring a photo album manufacturer to Cherokee County, South Carolina.

(on camera): At the time it was a very big deal for this county when Bain decided to expand and bring a company here. This entire area had not been developed and the county was eager to get this industrial park up and running.

(voice-over): But the company closed just five years later. County officials estimate up to 150 people lost their jobs.

(on camera): What do you say to the people who did lose their jobs in those situations that might view venture capitalism as a job killer instead of a job creator?

ROMNEY: I think any time a job is lost is a tragedy for the family, for the individual that loses a job. It's devastating. Every time that we invested in business, it was to try to encourage that business to have ongoing life.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): The departure of Bain's company in Cherokee County was a surprise after the county provided $3.2 million in bonds in a $50,000 sewer line as incentive to build. But 20 years later, county officials look back at the deal as a win/win.

(on camera): Even though you lost 150 jobs when this company left, you still consider it as something that helped the county?


MATTINGLY (voice-over): The building Bain built is now home of pen manufacturer, Bic, employing 80 people. After changing hands a couple times at a yearlong shut down, the steel plant in George Town is back up and running with 225 hourly workers, and some bitter Bain memories that have not mellowed with time.

(on camera): How much do you hold Mitt Romney responsible?

SANDERSON: Very responsible because he was the leader.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Decisions and consequences that the apparent leader among Republican hopefuls will be explaining in this critical primary state. David Mattingly, CNN, Greer, South Carolina.


BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the other political headlines making news on the CNN Political Ticker. As the Republican race for the nomination heats up, it turns out many voters aren't even paying attention.

A new polls show less than half now South Carolina is the next primary state, about 70 percent identify Newt Gingrich as the former House speaker, but only half can say where Mitt Romney was governor. The answer to the last one, of course, Massachusetts.

The first lady busting a move at a Virginia high school earlier today. Michelle Obama was promoting an upcoming appearance on Nickelodeon's "iCarly." Mrs. Obama thanks military families for their service.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Her husband is the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First lady Michelle Obama joins the cast of "iCarly." In the most powerful "iCarly" of all time "I meet the first lady."


BLITZER: The "iCarly" episode featuring Mrs. Obama airs Monday night on Nickelodeon.

Oprah Winfrey says she's 100 percent behind President Obama as he campaigns for election. But unlike back in 2008, the talk show host says she doesn't feel the need to formally endorse Mr. Obama, since everyone knows who he is. Oprah also says she thinks President Obama is doing a great job.


OPRAH WINFREY: I am a 100 percent supporter of him, and I've already endorsed him and I've already -- everybody asks are you going to do what I did in 2008?

What I did in 2008 I did because people didn't -- my own friends didn't know who he was at that time. They're like who is guy is. Do you think he's going to be president?

I go, yes, I really do. So I was happy to step up and do what I felt was a public service because I so believed in him, and I still do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you think the biggest challenge will be for a second term?

WINFREY: The biggest challenge I think will be the same thing as the first four years. That's getting jobs for people and getting our economy back in order, and building a sense of confidence in the American people so that they know that their futures can be sustain away.

I think that's the biggest challenge. I think he is a masterful leader, and I think that what it takes to be able to do that on a daily basis, and to stand up in a world where everybody is just open to attacking you all the time, it's a very hard job. I'm not in a position to say anything other than I'm proud of him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know Wolf is going to ask me, did Oprah publicly endorse?

WINFREY: I didn't endorse him and I didn't endorse him.


BLITZER: There it is, the interview with Oprah. Oprah spoke to CNN's Robyn Curnow, by the way, in South Africa. She's marking the graduation of the first students to attend her girls' academy.

When Rick Santorum talks about the right to bear arms, he may not mean the second amendment. Listen to the Republican presidential hopeful answer a question about his now famous sweater vest.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Santorum, I'm Reverend Michael Gore of the First Wesleyan Church, and I believe you are an answered prayer to get this country back. My question is -- where can I purchase one of those sweater vests?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't have the designer sweater vest. We actually have them online. They're embroidered, they say Rick Santorum, and I think they're gray and blue, so there will be two colors.

I think close to 1,000 people have bought sweater vests on our web site already in the last two days. We're also working on another type of sweater vest, and this is a hunting vest, an orange one. We have the Rick Santorum logo, and the saying "the right to b-a-r-e arms."


BLITZER: Who knew Senator Santorum is a fashion icon. He's campaigning, by the way, in South Carolina, after finishing near the bottom in New Hampshire. The comedian Stephen Colbert says he's launching a second bid for president in South Carolina.


STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: I am proud to announce that I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my possible candidacy for the president of the United States of South Carolina. I'm doing it!


BLITZER: The South Carolina native says voters see him as an alternative to Mitt Romney, or as he puts it, quote, "the only Mitt alternative."

The South Carolina elected officials say write-ins are not allowed in the primaries. In 2007, the Comedy Central host filed to run for the White House as a Democrat. Mitthernative. That's what he said.

For a complete political coverage, please be sure to read the ticker,

A convicted killer set free be an outgoing governor sparking fear and outrage in his home state and beyond. We found him. Now he's talking exclusively to CNN.

Up next, Newt Gingrich is making fun of Mitt Romney for speaking French. Paul Begala and Mary Matalin, they are standing by in our "Strategy Session."


BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session." Joining us our CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, he's is in Washington, and from New Orleans, our CNN political contributor, the Republican strategist, Mary Matalin.

Mary, let me start with you. Is Mitt Romney potentially in danger by all this Bain capital accusation? All the negative publicity he's getting and potentially could be defined by.

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, in danger if he doesn't handle it. He cannot not respond to this. He has got to do a little discourse on equity investments.

And point out the fact they create jobs more than lose jobs. Jobs that would have been had nothing been done and then he needs to give specific examples. So there is a way to handle it, and no pun intended, he could actually leverage it to a positive.

If he opened the debate to the difference between a free market and a controlled market and talk about a free market necessitating virtue and morality. We haven't got to that part of the conversation.

There's an opening for him to leverage this to his advantage. But if he doesn't handle it right or respond, or think now and respond and think it's going to go away, it's going to have a negative impact.

BLITZER: Should he do, Paul, what President Obama, that candidate Obama did in 2008 when he was being accused of all sorts of things because of his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Go on television and deliver a speech explaining all of this from his perspective.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely. It's very different because, of course, President Obama was not accountable for what Reverend Wright said. In fact, he disavowed what Reverend Wright said.

This is about what Mitt Romney did. Mary is right. It's all about morality because what Romney did is not what normal businesses do. Romney's answer is very dishonest. He says you invest, some businesses succeed and some fail. Yes, but even the ones that failed he took money out of.

He laid people off and made millions from laying them off. That's not the same as just a normal investment that goes bad. It's a heads I win/tails you lose deal. It's a rigged deal, which is why many conservatives, many free market conservatives including Rick Perry who's, you know, conservatives they come or Newt Gingrich are attacking him for this.

They're not attacking capitalism. They're attacking this vulture capitalism where Romney enriched himself and the wealthy investors by hammering the middle class, which I think is politically, hugely problematic for him.

BLITZER: Mary, Newt Gingrich is doing well in this new poll that we just got out of South Carolina. Relatively speaking, he's got a new web video really blasting Mitt Romney. I'm going to play a clip of it. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Romney proposed the contract with America, raise taxes and offered the government mandated health care with taxpayer- funded abortions.

But now he tells us, trust me, I'm a conservative. Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney, he'll say anything to win, anything. Just like John Kerry -- he speaks French, too.

But he's still a Massachusetts moderate and a Massachusetts moderate cannot beat Barack Obama.


BLITZER: On a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the best, how good is that ad?

MATALIN: That's what we say every day here in New Orleans, let the good times roll. It's clever, it's funny, but Romney learned his French, which is a difficult language, as a missionary in France. So it's not comparable to Kerry. They're trying to turn him into Kerry.

And I don't want like these attacks, like when Mitt called Newt zany, they should stick to the facts, stick to the philosophy, who is the better conservative, why/why not.

This is a little too cute. I don't know anybody in South Carolina that will cast their vote based on what language people speak.

BLITZER: What do you think, Paul?

BEGALA: Yes, I think Mary is exactly right about that. It's really amazing that, you know, Newt Gingrich, he's a professor, he may even speak French himself. I think he live in France for a while. I'm not sure.

But that's what he's going to choose to attack on. He's trying to make a broader point, which is to tell conservatives in South Carolina that Romney governed as a moderate.

It's not entirely true. He governed as a liberal. He was pro- choice. He ran for the Senate against Teddy Kennedy vowing to be more pro-gay rights than Kennedy.

So those are valid attacks that Newt is raising and Governor Romney needs to answer them, but the notion of attacking him for speaking French is so silly when the Bush campaign attacked John Kerry for that. It's silly when the Gingrich camp attacks Mitt Romney for that.

BLITZER: It might though appeal to some blue collar voters out there potentially.

All right, Senator John McCain who won the South Carolina Republican primary four years ago was on Letterman last night. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you think things are going for your party, the grand old party? How is it going, Senator?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, we've had better days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems like everybody has gone wacky in the Republican Party. I just wondered, was it the influence of the Tea Party or am I over-examining this?

MCCAIN: You're over-examining it, as usual.




MCCAIN: These are good things for America. How many people have watched one of these debates? I'll bet you everybody in this -- you know. It's been good for America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I agree. MCCAIN: It's good for the process. It's good to see whether somebody is a wacko or whether they're not a wacko.


BLITZER: Which one is the wacko in there?

MATALIN: The debates too many conveying too little or are with we really starting a big conversation. All the evidence we have is that from exit and the entrance poll, voters are saying the debates weigh more than the ads, 2-1, 3-1.

The debates influenced their vote, so I guess in the end the voters are feeling like they're getting something out of them and more of them are watching them.

You know, they are kind of interesting, the more they have, the more opportunity there is for people to take a walk on the wild side.

BLITZER: Paul, 10 seconds, we're out of time?

BEGALA: I love these debates. It puts the candidates under real pressure, not as much as being president, but it makes them take issue positions. And it does show a little bit about who, as McCain said, who is wacko, and so far I think it's all of them.

BLITZER: I love these debates too. Guys, thanks very much.

One of the Mississippi murders is now speaking out. Despite the killing of his wife, he was paroled by the governor. Up next, he speaks exclusively to CNN.


BLITZER: We have an exclusive report for you now. CNN has located one of the four convicted murderers pardoned by the outgoing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. A move that's ignited a huge controversy.

CNN's Martin Savidge spoke to Anthony McCray convicted of murdering his wife. Martin, what did he tell you?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it was quite a fascinating way that this all came about, Wolf. We had actually gone down to do a profile on Jennifer McCray's family, the victim's family here to see their outrage and hear how this pardon has once again torn up their lives.

While we're talking to family members in the neighborhood, somebody leads you to the house where Anthony McCray used to live and then points out that's Anthony McCray.

We went to the house, the doors were closed. It took some coaxing. It took some work to get him to talk to us, but eventually he did, and here's how it went down.


ANTHONY MCCRAY, CONVICTED MURDERER PARDONED BY GOVERNOR: It's a blessing to be out, see your children, take care of them, all that. I've been saved. I've been baptized. I've been reading the bible for 12-1/2 years, so it's a true blessing. I didn't do this. God did this.

SAVIDGE: Your pardon, though, as you probably know by now, has triggered a lot of outrage. Not just yours, of course, but pardons of other prisoners.

MCCRAY: Yes, sir.

SAVIDGE: What do you think about that?

MCCRAY: The lord laid on the governor's heart, and the inmates around the world who have been working at the government mansion did -- whatever they've been doing in Charleston, yes, I think they should be pardoned. Everybody deserves a second chance in life.

SAVIDGE: Do you think people should be angry at Governor Barbour?

MCCRAY: No. No, sir. He treated us like we were his children.

SAVIDGE: Like you were his children.

MCCRAY: That's right. He don't -- he don't raise no kind of -- to nobody. He asks us to do stuff, we do it.


SAVIDGE: Let me point out one thing to you, Wolf. Anthony McCray is a murderer. There is no doubt about that. He shot his wife in the back in front of witnesses after an argument in a public cafe.

That's never been in question. He says he's a changed man. We don't know that. What we do know is that he says that Governor Haley Barbour is being improperly chastised for this pardon, which he says gave him a second chance.

But it's also interesting to note, while working in the governor's mansion, which is what Anthony did, he could talk to Governor Barbour on a daily basis and lobby on his own behalf.

BLITZER: He probably did. Martin Savidge, good work. Thanks very, very much. What a story.

Up next, why some prostitutes are now backing Ron Paul for president.


BLITZER: Some prostitutes in Nevada are enthusiastically backing Ron Paul for president. CNN senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen shows us why.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ron Paul's met a lot of his supporters, but he probably hasn't met these women and they love him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The client comes into the Bunny Ranch and says I'm pimping for Paul, they're going to have a real good time, aren't they, girls?

COHEN: Dennis Hofon's the Bunny Ranch and if the presidential election were held today, there's no question who would win here? The prostitutes at this legal brothel have a pimping for Paul campaign because Paul supports their right to make their living this way.

RON PAUL (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, you have a right to do things that are very controversial.

COHEN: Prostitution is legal in 16 counties in Nevada. Prostitutes, they prefer the term working girls, say this helps protect their health. First, they have the right to reject any customer they don't like.

(on camera): So you bring a gentleman in here and you do an inspection of some kind? What are you looking for?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We ask him to drop his pants.

COHEN (voice-over): They're looking for signs of sexually transmitted diseases.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They say, honey, there's something here that I'm concerned about. I don't know if it would be in both our interests to party here. Why don't you go to a doctor get that checked out?

COHEN: Second, every customer has to use a condom every time by law.

(on camera): So if a guy says to you, a couple of hundred bucks if I don't have to use one of these, what do you say to him?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, sorry. I mean, even if it's thousands and thousands of dollars. I still look at my health. I don't know where this guy has been.

COHEN (voice-over): Thirdly, the working girls get checked regularly for sexually transmitted diseases.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: See you in a week.

COHEN: The Nevada Department of Epidemiology says in more than 30 years there's never been a single case of HIV among legal prostitutes in Nevada. But their jobs have come under attack from federal officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The time has come to outlaw prostitution.

COHEN: The working girls want to keep the federal government out of their business, so they're asking customers to donate to Paul's campaign on their way out the door. In two days, they raised $587 and they're pimping for more.

(on camera): The owner of the Bunny Ranch tells us that he tried to donate that money directly to the campaign, but folks at the campaign told him no, we don't want it directly, please give it to a PAC that supports Ron Paul instead. We reached out to the Ron Paul campaign, Wolf, and we did not get a response. Wolf.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you.