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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Debate Countdown; Gingrich's Ex-Wife's Accusations; Interview with Senator Lindsey Graham

Aired January 19, 2012 - 19:00   ET

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


ERIN BURNETT, HOST: All right, thanks so much to you, John. One hour away from the last debate before the South Carolina primary. Rick Perry suspending his campaign today, we are down to just four. Sounds like an Agathie Christie novel, doesn't it?

What they all need to do in the debate tonight. And an exclusive, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham OUTFRONT tonight. An endorsement from him would be a big boost for any candidate going into this weekend's primary. He's here. Just saw him behind our stage. The question is will he give an endorsement?

And the "Bottom Line" on Newt Gingrich in the center of a big storm today, picking up a big endorsement from Rick Perry on the same day a shocking interview with one of his ex-wives is set to air. Which will have a bigger impact on his run on Saturday?

Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening everyone. I'm Erin Burnett and OUTFRONT tonight we are live from Charleston, South Carolina. And you know it's a chilly night. It was a beautiful day, a little chilly. You'll see the men don't wear jackets, the women do, and isn't that the way the world works?

CNN is going to be hosting the four remaining Republican candidates in a high stakes debate tonight. In just two days, voters here are going to go to the polls and South Carolina has an impressive record. The winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to win the nomination every single presidential election since 1980. And despite new polls showing a very tight race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, an explosive interview with one of Gingrich's ex-wives threatens to derail his momentum.

Marianne Gingrich, his second wife, of 18 years, slammed his character and said he asked her for a quote, "open marriage". On the campaign trail today, Newt shrugged it off.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, look, I'm not going to say anything about Marianne. My two daughters have already written to ABC complaining about this as tawdry and inappropriate. I'm not getting involved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: All right, well the comments overshadowed the other big story of the day. Rick Perry totally surprising, announcing he's dropping out of the race and endorsing Gingrich.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path forward for me in this 2012 campaign. Therefore, today, I am suspended my campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich for president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Well, Perry was supposed to participate in tonight's CNN debate, so much so that all the podiums and everything were ready to go. The last-minute announcement that he was getting out of the race shuffled our plans a little bit. You'll look at Perry's podium being -- what, did we kick it over? I don't know what happened there.

Anyway there is a lot to talk about tonight. I think it's safe to say it's incredibly rare to have all this happening on one day. John Avlon is with us, Ari Fleischer, former press secretary, of course joining us, for President George W. Bush and David Gergen, senior political analyst. All right, all in place, here we are and I know you obviously -- this is your hometown in a lot of ways.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I love it.

BURNETT: It's been a great day here out in the Barrier Islands, went out, signs everywhere.

AVLON: This is the height of politics and this is a good time to be in South Carolina.

BURNETT: I even got stuck, Ari, behind the Santorum Express.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was that a big express?

BURNETT: It was a big bus. And I was clocking its speed --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a metaphor.

BURNETT: I was looking for traffic violations. I didn't see any. I didn't see any. All right, but we do have a lot to talk about. So David Gergen, let me start with you. Of all the things that happened today with Santorum winning Iowa, John Avlon --

(AUDIO GAP)

BURNETT: Perry --

(AUDIO GAP)

BURNETT: -- the interview with Newt Gingrich's ex-wife. What is the most important headline? DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think there's any one -- we've been in a peaks and valley day. I mean we opened --

(AUDIO GAP)

GERGEN: -- like Newt Gingrich had a momentum behind him. He went ahead slightly in front of Mitt Romney in three different polls today. He then got the Perry endorsement. All of it looked like hey Mitt's in trouble. He could be in trouble. Gingrich could punch through. Then we get this potentially explosive interview with Marianne Gingrich, his second wife, that's to play tonight. We don't know how it's going to play out. But what we have, we've had a head snapping day and we got a rip snorting (ph) campaign going on here.

BURNETT: Ron Paul arriving.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: The candidates do arrive during this -- the next few minutes, we're going to start to see all of them actually coming in. I don't know if you can see in John King's piece for the viewers, but literally in the deep depths of the coliseum, there are rooms literally with just you know 8.5 by 11 piece of paper typed out, each of the candidates' names and they go in there, get a little makeup on. They all wear makeup and then they come --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't want to have a shiny head.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: No, we don't want to have a shiny head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you know (INAUDIBLE) talking about, he's 100 percent right except there's 48 hours to go --

GERGEN: And who knows what's going to happen in the next 48 --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You got it --

(CROSSTALK)

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: South Carolina always does its politics on steroids. It is the most exciting state for politics and it's meaningful and is especially meaningful now because if tonight Mitt Romney can get on the way to a knockout punch and if he wins South Carolina Saturday, it's hard to see anybody staying in. If Newt wins and I got a sense Newt's going to win, if Newt wins, we have a long spring.

AVLON: Look, there's no question Newt's been getting momentum in the state. That was before the Perry endorsement today and that was a smart bit of politics on Perry's part. He gets to be sort of the savior instead of the spoiler in South Carolina. But one of the big things that's happened is that whole Mitt inevitability narrative has taken a major day, not just because of Iowa now moving into the Santorum column, but because of the poll shrinking here and a lot of questions about not just Bain Capital, but now (INAUDIBLE) interest questions, Cayman Island questions, so tonight there's a sense of blood in the water here, so I think it's going to be --

GERGEN: This is actually a crucial moment. I don't -- I can't remember a debate in which all year they've all been very important, but this one could actually determine the outcome of South Carolina and South Carolina could be make or break.

FLEISCHER: And if you're John King and (INAUDIBLE) questions (INAUDIBLE) to ask, you say I've got (INAUDIBLE) really hard ones for Mitt Romney --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You need three hours --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hard one for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum --

BURNETT: Rick Santorum (INAUDIBLE) the Santorum Express.

FLEISCHER: And of course, Ron Paul is back. We've got some great ingredients --

BURNETT: And Ron Paul -- I've got to say the funniest part about today in South Carolina was, well first of all, the ad blitz you hear, right, but then you know there's the sign out there for Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich. I saw all three of those, but then when the Ron Paul ad came by, it was like a big truck up on hot wheels, and it was like Ron Paul revolution --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: Energy and passion --

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: (INAUDIBLE) also interesting because you go around talking to the -- sort of the political commentators and analysts, correspondents who are here, everybody was sort of you know (INAUDIBLE) South Carolina, it's going to all be over here. It all lit up today like this is what politics -- this is what (INAUDIBLE) excites people about politics because (INAUDIBLE) these days, who, what? Can you believe it?

FLEISCHER: Well what excites people as long as you're not working in one of these campaigns --

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: That's exactly right. Three heart attacks a day and I was talking to one of the campaigns this week and I said to them, my old motto was if every day is a crisis, there's no such thing as a crisis.

AVLON: That's right.

FLEISCHER: Crisis is routine.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: And I'm going to follow up on one more thing though and the question, obviously Mitt Romney's got all these tax questions, but the personal questions for Newt Gingrich, how important are those in this state? John, you've done a lot of reporting on it isn't as quote, unquote, "evangelical, traditional" as stereotypes suggest.

AVLON: That's one of the extraordinary things. I mean Rick Santorum has not gotten the bump out of that Texas ranch meeting that he was supposed to in South Carolina. That's one indication of that.

BURNETT: Right.

AVLON: Look, I mean you know I think a lot of Newt's personal stuff is already baked in the cake. I mean I don't think it is news when an ex-wife says lousy things. I think it is news when like John McCain's ex-wife endorsed him and said lovely things about him. That's news. So you know we have to see the content of this ad --

FLEISCHER: I don't know. This one is a little tougher. What Marianne Gingrich said is a shocker. The words she used, the way she put it, this goes above and beyond what you normally hear is a negative statement and if there's truth to it and none of us know, but if there's truth to it, it's a reprehensible thing. I can't imagine women having any kind of other reaction --

BURNETT: And I have to say --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: -- it stood out to me all week when --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: We had Newt on a week ago that you know you had Newt winning among evangelicals, but Mitt Romney back then, you know was a huge gap, women preferring Mitt Romney --

AVLON: That's right.

BURNETT: -- and how this affects that obviously is a big question.

GERGEN: Romney has to deal with the tax (INAUDIBLE) issue as well tonight not only for South Carolina, but for the long term. In Newt Gingrich's case, there's a reasonable possibility he can go ahead and win South Carolina, but I think this is a real drag on him in the longer term and he's got to be concerned about that tonight.

BURNETT: Yes. All right. We've got Rick Santorum arriving right now. We're going to -- we'll show some footage as he walks in and John Avlon that brings me to you and I'm going to pound your chest for you. You were the one who day after Iowa -- I mean Ari and David he was -- (INAUDIBLE) I don't think it really turned out this way. I don't think it really turned out this way and everyone said, all right, all right, we know you're passionate about this, John, but you were right. You were right and you came out and you made the stand, you found the guy, you got the numbers and a victory is a victory.

AVLON: Yes. I mean this morning, woke up, "Des Moines Register" had what appears to be as final as we're going to get, Rick Santorum, 34 votes up over Mitt Romney as opposed to that eight-vote win. I mean look, you can't unring a bell. I mean the real benefit of Iowa is the money, the momentum, the media attention. That went to Mitt Romney unfairly.

BURNETT: That's right.

AVLON: And what's insane actually is that there are eight precincts that we are never going to know apparently what happened. I mean they -- the Iowa GOP says they can't get it, but all that stonewalling and saying the outcome would not change and there's zero credibility to every true statement proven to be false, Rick Santorum gets a victory and also I think that, you know what Mitt's been running on, the only guy to win Iowa and New Hampshire, that's not true anymore.

BURNETT: Right, even though the delegate count doesn't change the psychology --

AVLON: That's right. That's right.

GERGEN: (INAUDIBLE) if you're Santorum, I would think there would be a bunch of people around him and say he got a raw deal out of Iowa.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: The Republican Party out there said basically Romney won it.

FLEISCHER: He still got a very significant bounce out of it. He still got the last minute surprise. But fundamentally I don't think it would have changed anything if he was the outright winner because --

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: People were still discounting his Iowa success --

BURNETT: Right.

FLEISCHER: -- because he's lived out in Iowa. It was a different type of state and he was able to fit into the state --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

FLEISCHER: And he lived there. And that really changed his ability to go on (INAUDIBLE).

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: All right. We're going to hit pause there. But we're talking a lot about this Newt Gingrich interview and exactly what happened with his ex-wife. Well guess what, the man who did that interview is Brian Ross. ABC's Brian Ross is actually coming on our show next to talk about this interview, to talk about what Newt Gingrich's ex-wife said to him, the tone in which she said it. He's going to share that interview with us.

And then former candidate, Herman Cain, finally made his endorsement today. We're going to ask him how and why he came to his decision. He'll be sitting right here on our set OUTFRONT before the debate.

And new developments with a cruise ship which crashed into the rocks off the coast of Italy. What the ship's cook said the captain was doing just moments after the ship ran aground.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Explosive comments from Newt Gingrich's ex-wife who says among other things that Newt Gingrich wanted an open marriage when he admitted to having an affair with another woman, Callista Bisek. She is now his wife. Here is an excerpt from the interview with "ABC News".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIANNE GINGRICH, EX-WIFE OF NEWT GINGRICH: I said to him, we've been married a long time. And he said, yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was he saying to you, do you think?

M. GINGRICH: Oh, he was asking to have an open marriage and I refused.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He wanted an open marriage?

M. GINGRICH: Yes, that I accept the fact that he has somebody else in his life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you said?

M. GINGRICH: No. No. That is not a marriage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Marianne Gingrich was talking to Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative correspondent and Brian joins us now, obviously this interview to air in full tonight. Brian, Brian, I guess a lot to ask you, but first, let me ask you, what do you think her motivation was to talk right now? How did you get her to do this interview now? BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we started talking to her about doing an interview back in November and it took until now, until last Friday, to actually persuade her to sit down and talk with us. We began with questions primarily about Newt and some of his actions in Congress as speaker that led to ethics investigations and then it came out during the course of our discussions with her and our interview that she wanted to talk more and entirely about what happened in the marriage. As to the ethics investigation, she actually defends Newt and says all the deals he was involved with in her view were above board, but on the question of ethics in the marriage, a much different story.

BURNETT: And it seems, Brian, obviously she was saying that when he was married before he met her that there had been an overlap between that marriage and her relationship with him as well, correct?

ROSS: He began -- she began to see him when he was in divorce proceedings from his first wife, who he had asked for a divorce when she was undergoing cancer treatments. Marianne says that when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that was -- seven months after that when Newt asked her for a divorce and at that point she says Newt had had a six-year long affair with a congressional aide, Callista.

BURNETT: Right, who is now his wife. Now let me ask you, Brian, back in 1995, I know that Marianne had told "Vanity Fair" that she could derail any presidential ambitions Newt might have, saying quote, "he can't do it without me. I can just go on the air the next day I undermine everything. I don't want him to be president and I don't think he should be." Did you get a feeling of vengeance or anger when you were talking to her or not and I will just say, by the way, viewers, we'll now show you Newt Gingrich who is arriving at this moment with Callista right now as you can see for our debate tonight.

ROSS: Well, I think there was a sense of anger still 12 years after the divorce. Less of bitterness, but more of anger and that of long-term betrayal that she still feels, that she had given a lot of her life to help Newt build his political career and then she essentially was dumped and -- for a younger woman. A blond, and who she says Newt told her would help her -- help him run for president. So she feels I think a betrayal about that, but more than that, said she's coming forward now because she does not think that Newt Gingrich has the moral character to be president.

BURNETT: And Brian, I know that obviously moral character is an important quality that a lot of people care a lot about. You got this interview. You got it now two days before a crucial primary, a crucial primary for Newt Gingrich, his presidential ambitions. I know it was a tough decision to decide whether to air it ahead of that or not. What made ABC and you come down to the decision of choosing to air it tonight?

ROSS: We did the interview last Friday and we had a story, also, that went on last night about Mitt Romney and some of his offshore accounts in the Caymans and we felt that the stories about Romney and Gingrich should run in tandem. They should both run at the same time before the South Carolina primary. We didn't want to run it on Friday, 24 hours before the vote, so it ended up being on Thursday, and we also wanted to give Gingrich time to respond and late today we did hear from his two daughters, who by the way, Erin, said they asked their father about the open marriage allegation and he told them it was simply not true.

BURNETT: All right. Well Brian Ross, thank you very much. Brian Ross is the chief investigative correspondent for ABC and the full interview between Brian and Marianne Gingrich is tonight on "ABC's Nightline", 11:35 p.m. You can watch it on ABC. Newt Gingrich, meantime, will be my guest tomorrow night. We're going to talk about all of this the day before the crucial primary for him here in South Carolina.

All right, well we are about 40 minutes away from a debate as good and exciting as a debate could possibly be and ahead of that, the senior senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, going to come OUTFRONT. I'm hopeful, Senator?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

BURNETT: There he is. He said yes. He's over there. I see you behind the lights. Maybe he will have an endorsement. And what's the number one car company in the world? Hint. Guess what -- made in the USA. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: We are live from the North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina, the site of tonight's CNN debate. Now it's going to begin as you can see in just over 30-minutes time. OUTFRONT tonight an exclusive interview with the state's senior Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, whose endorsement has been highly coveted, oh highly coveted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh unbelievable.

BURNETT: Yes, it has (INAUDIBLE). Is it going to come out tonight?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's been highly coveted by people who want to win, for the other guy.

BURNETT: Oh no, so why have you been reticent to endorse?

GRAHAM: I don't know who I'm going to vote for. I've never seen an election cycle like this. You've got good people, every time something happens, it makes me reevaluate. And the reason South Carolina is so undecided this late is that we know we pick presidents and we want to make sure we send the best opponent to end the Obama presidency. So there's a lot of pressure on us and I honest to God don't know who I'm going to vote for Saturday yet.

BURNETT: It's amazing. I was thinking I could cut together a fun little skit listening to the ads that are running --

(CROSSTALK) BURNETT: Santorum the only guy who can beat Obama, Gingrich the only guy who can beat Obama.

GRAHAM: And the other part of the ads is that you should not only not let these people be president, you shouldn't let them come to your house. I mean this is ridiculous down here and at the end of the day, I miss car commercials. You cannot turn your TV on in South Carolina without some super PAC. And the lesson of 2012 is what do we do about super PACs. This is getting way out of hand.

BURNETT: Do you think we should get rid of them?

GRAHAM: I think we should regulate them, allow candidates to raise some more money because it's going to be, you don't want to tick off a certain billionaire because they can ruin your life because five or six people can fund all the ads in America is not healthy.

BURNETT: Right and one thing that also seems very disturbing about it that I don't understand, so you set up a super PAC, you set up a little charitable arm that gives away a couple of dollars and in exchange you don't have to disclose -- disclose who your donors are.

GRAHAM: Welcome to America --

BURNETT: That's appalling.

GRAHAM: This just won't withstand scrutiny, the public's going to rebel.

BURNETT: Right -- right. I certainly hope so --

GRAHAM: I hope so, too.

BURNETT: It certainly seems that way. So, let me ask you about some of the things out there.

GRAHAM: OK.

BURNETT: Mitt Romney, obviously there's going to be a lot of scrutiny on the financial side, on his taxes. He's a business man. He's worth a lot of money and he pays a capital gains rate.

GRAHAM: Right.

BURNETT: Newt Gingrich, questions about personal character and integrity now being raised again. Which of those two things, I'm not asking you about individually, but which of those two things do you think is a more important measure of a man when it comes to being president?

GRAHAM: Well, there's a contest for one's heart and mind. We don't vote just with our hearts. We don't vote for the person who is most conservative, who says the things that we all like to hear. We also require that person to convince us they can win in November. Romney's time in Bain Capital, he needs to be more aggressive. Turn to the camera and say, I made my money honestly. I saved companies that were going to go down because they couldn't go to the bank; nobody's going to lend them money. Staples wouldn't exist if I didn't believe in the idea of investing in something that no bank would lend money on. Because I think people wanted cheap legal pads and you know cheap staples.

BURNETT: Right.

GRAHAM: So he needs to tell folks what I did in the private sector has to be done in Washington. As far as Newt, nobody in this field has got a better resume of delivering change in Washington than I do. There's no better person who can articulate the conservative message against Obama better than I. Rick says I'm the total package, so you got a, you know -- and Ron Paul says --

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: -- you want change you're going to get it.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: Well you know at the end of the day, step it up a little bit. We want passion. We want intellect. But we want to make sure we're sending the best person into the arena that can face a billion dollars worth of attacks --

BURNETT: Right.

GRAHAM: -- and sell people who are inclined to vote conservative, but need to be sold.

BURNETT: All right, but let me ask you, so are you going to vote on Saturday?

GRAHAM: I'm voting. I may vote twice. No, I'm voting. I'm voting on Saturday --

BURNETT: You're voting, but you don't know for whom?

GRAHAM: Well tonight will be helpful. Monday, the wind is to Newt's back.

BURNETT: Right.

GRAHAM: The one thing I can tell you and the personal stuff, you know people have got to judge it themselves. I used to do divorces for four years, so I got my own view about you know how marriages end is tough.

BURNETT: Yes.

GRAHAM: A lot of presidents have had problems on the personal side. What I'm looking at is the person who can best carry the message and win in November and I think South Carolina has a history for 30 years of getting it right and we feel an enormous amount of pressure and we're still unsure as to who that person is. Tonight will be helpful.

BURNETT: All right. Maybe you can give me a phone call before you vote on Saturday.

GRAHAM: (INAUDIBLE)

BURNETT: All right. Good to see you, sir. Thanks very much.

All right, well just over a half an hour until the debate, Mitt Romney, the front-runner, although there were some polls today showing it to be within the margin of error with Newt Gingrich. What does Mitt Romney need to do to clinch the nomination, which has been near his grasp, but obviously elusive and what does Newt Gingrich need to do to catch him?

And Herman Cain finally made an endorsement. We're going to ask him how he made the decision, why, because guess what, he's going to be sitting where Senator Graham is sitting right now. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: All right. You are looking at a picture of the inside of the North Charleston Coliseum here in South Carolina, where the debate is going to take place, crucial debate. The last time we're going to see all the candidates together before the crucial primary on Saturday -- a primary which every presidential year since 1980 has chosen the nominee.

All right. We're getting ready there, just 30 minutes to go.

We begin the second half of our show with stories we care about, we're focusing on and doing our own reporting on it.

And tonight, we want to start off with Rick Perry. Rick Perry, as you know, dropping out of the GOP presidential field this morning, throwing his support behind Newt Gingrich very quickly. In a CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll released yesterday, which is the last poll we've got, the Texas governor polled at 6 percent in South Carolina, ahead of Saturday's primary after Jon Huntsman got out, that meant Perry would have finished last.

There are now four candidates battling for the GOP nomination. All four will take part in tonight's CNN South Carolina debate. It starts right after OUTFRONT. Literally, we will hand it on a second. We will not mess it up.

Number two, General Motors today regaining its title as the world's biggest automaker. Now, this has been lost and a little of pride to the U.S. But G.M. selling 9 million cars in 2011, beating out Volkswagen. Former number one was Toyota, which has its sales drop after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March.

G.M. is not the only U.S. automaker with good news. Ford, which as you probably aware, did not get a government bailout -- G.M. did -- announced the company's white collar workers will get a pay rise and a bonus because of improved profits. I got to say 9 million cars.

You know at the peak, we were at 16 million cars a year. Does that say something about how far we have to go to get back to where we were?

Number three, Kodak officially filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today. Kodak, 131 years old, says it's got a billion dollars to keep paying vendors and employees during the bankruptcy proceedings. Despite developing the first digital camera in 1975 and improving on it in the '90s, recently, Kodak's been unable to keep up with competitors and smartphones.

Oh, it says, hold precious. That's precious.

We looked at the numbers. Last year, more than 100 billion photos were uploaded to Flickr and the world's largest photo-sharing site Facebook. It's estimated more than 10 percent of the photos ever taken were snapped in 2011. Three on precious today that went to Twitter.

Number four, initial jobless claims falling to their lowest level in four years. That's something to celebrate -- 352,000 filing for first time unemployment benefits last week. That's down 50,000 from the prior week, well below the closely passionately obsessed about level of 400,000, which is the line between growing and shrinking in the labor market.

Economists say it's a positive sign, but they do not expect the unemployment rate to drop rapidly. They're expecting the jobless rate to slowly drift slower. Obviously, it all comes down to that when it comes to the president's chances for re-election in November.

It has been 167 days since America lost its top credit rating. What are we doing to get it back?

New data shows that inflation remains in check, which will help. Ben Bernanke indicated for the day, the consumer price index, which measures what you pay for goods and services was flat for the month of December.

All right. Well, he has been promising an unconventional endorsement for weeks and weeks and Herman Cain just delivered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HERMAN CAIN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My unconventional endorsement is the people. We the people of this nation are still in charge. That's who I'm endorsing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: All right. Fresh off that announcement, Herman Cain OUTFRONT now.

Good to see you, sir.

CAIN: Thank you, Erin.

BURNETT: I know you've been spending some time with Stephen Colbert.

CAIN: Yes.

BURNETT: From here, with his own campaign.

CAIN: Yes.

BURNETT: What made you make that announcement? I understand the passion. I understand the point. But I also understand it means you didn't feel that passionately about anybody who's going to be at that podium tonight.

CAIN: I wanted the American people to be energized about this primary election, about the presidential election, to remind the people that they really are still in charge of this country. I could have endorsed an individual, but then a couple of things would have happened. My supporters might have been disappointed if I didn't pick the one they like.

I want people to stay engaged and inspired and remind people that it's the voters, the voters, the people, we the people are still in charge of this country and on top of that, empower yourself to make a difference. That's why I did an unconventional endorsement.

BURNETT: This is a even if you don't love who's running, you go out and vote. That's your responsibility.

CAIN: Yes.

BURNETT: And your passion and you can't be so angry at Washington if you don't do something about changing it.

CAIN: Exactly. I heard too many people say that once I dropped out because they were supporters of mine, that they've interest. I don't want people to lose interest. We can't lose interest. And so, it was intended to get people reengaged.

And the other thing is, who ever gets the nomination, we've got to then rally around that person because even though I'm not seeking the position of president, I have not lost my passion for the mission, which is to defeat Barack Obama in November.

BURNETT: So, you'll be out on the trail helping whoever it is finally gets that.

CAIN: Yes, I will.

BURNETT: All right. So, let me ask you about the big event today and obviously I know you got a point of view on this. So, Newt Gingrich's second wife, comes out, gives an interview to ABC's Brian Ross about their relationship, says he had asked for an open marriage, had a six-year affair, ended up marrying his now wife. It is getting a lot of coverage. A lot of people are saying the moral integrity of the person is so crucial. Obviously, you went through an incredibly difficult you were number one.

CAIN: Yes.

BURNETT: And ended up getting out of the race because of allegations of sexual harassment.

What do you think about this Newt Gingrich situation?

CAIN: I think it's irrelevant. It's only important to the people running the story. It is not important to the people. I talk to them all the time. They are sick of the negativity. They're sick of somebody digging up somebody's past or even fabricating stuff like that. People don't care about that stuff.

I think it's irrelevant and I happen to think what the people are looking for now that we narrow the field, they want to hear solutions. They want to be better educated about the things that matter, we -- the economy, the national security. They want to hear more of how they're going to fix things, not just what's wrong.

So I think it's irrelevant. It's only important for people looking for easy stories to conjure up relative to somebody's personal background.

BURNETT: All right. And I understand -- look, I understand -- you know, you personally felt that happened to you. But you do believe, I am sure, that the morality and integrity of a person matters a lot.

CAIN: Of course it does, but it doesn't, to me, command the amount of attention it gets in the media with all honesty. It does not.

That was no secret in terms of what was in his past. That's been brought up before, so why go and bring it up again now? It makes you kind of wonder that somebody would do it on purpose as a distraction from what's really important and I don't think that's important.

BURNETT: Since you've gotten out of the race, what have you been doing?

CAIN: I started CainConnections.com. CainConnections.com, solutions revolution -- because I'm still going to promote my 9-9-9 plan. You mentioned about those 9 million cars, when we pass 9-9-9, we'll with able to sell 9 million more cars.

BURNETT: We'll get back --

CAIN: We'll get back to 9-9-9. I'm promoting solutions to get people's minds off the negativity, to get people's attention off the stuff that's irrelevant, and get the attention on solutions because that's how we're going to beat Obama in November.

BURNETT: All right. Good to see you. And I'm you said 9-9-9 because I love hearing you say it.

CAIN: I can't leave home without saying that.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: All right. Good to see you. Herman Cain, thanks very much.

CAIN: Thanks, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. And as you can see, just over 20 minutes to go. Mitt Romney heading into tonight's debate as the front-runner. What do the other candidates need to do to catch him? This is going to be one amazing debate.

There's Sam Feist, that's o head of political coverage. And it looks like he's doing the warm-up act.

All right. And the shocking developments from the Italian cruise ship crash. What the ship's cook says the captain asked for right after the cruise hit the rocks. We're going to tell you about that, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: All right. We do this at the same time every night, our "Outer Circle," where we reach out to our sources around the world.

And tonight, we begin in Italy, where we have new details to tell you about with the cruise ship situation. This is amateur video from YouTube which shows water rushing down the stairs inside the cruise ship, which ran aground. This literally was taken by a passenger who was on the Costa Concordia -- and we are learning new details about that night about what Captain Schettino was doing as well.

A cook who worked on the ship tells a Filipino TV station, the cook was Filipino, that the captain of the Costa Concordia ordered dinner for himself and a woman staff member after the ship collided with the rocks off the coast of Italy.

Captain Schettino, as you maybe aware, is currently under house arrest in Italy, facing possible charges of manslaughter, shipwreck and abandoning ship.

Meanwhile, the decision looms over whether to continue the search for survivors -- 21 people are still classified technically as missing, 11 confirmed are dead. And, obviously, nearly one week after the disaster.

CNN's Dan Rivers is in Giglio Island, Italy, and we asked him when authorities were actually going to switch to a recovery mission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RIVERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erin, I think that point is sadly approaching quite quickly. They've continued to use explosives to try to open up parts of the boat they haven't been able to get to before, but we're being told by this weekend they're going the start the salvage operation to start pumping the more than 2,000 tons of heavy fuel off the Costa Concordia before the weather starts to deteriorate and the boat becomes even more unstable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: All right. Thanks very much to Dan Rivers.

And now we go to Russia, the country's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced that Russia will be rejecting using any sanctions against Syria. He also ruled out the idea of deploying foreign troops to Syria.

Syrian opposition groups report that 25 people were killed across the country today and that 6,000 have died in the conflict since March.

Andrew Kuchins is the director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia program. And we asked him how Russia's stance limits the possibility of international coordinated intervention in Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREW KUCHINS, DIRECTOR, CSIS RUSSIA AND EURASIA PROGRAM: It will make it impossible for the U.N. to do anything because of Russia's status of U.N. Security Council, they can veto this. That will reduce the legitimacy or credibility of anything that the international community takes.

And the Russians believe they made a big mistake in the Libya case in their position of abstaining on the U.N. Security Council. They're not going to repeat that again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Thanks very much to Andrew Kuchins. We are now, as you can see, just about 15 minutes away from the debate.

Fireworks here begin in just a few minutes, but as Gloria Borger was just saying off camera -- what a day it has been in politics.

This debate is crucial and the big question is what does each individual need to do to clinch a victory on Saturday?

Let's bring in our own political big guns, as we're calling them -- David Frum, Gloria Borger, Kevin Madden -- all joining us.

Of course, Kevin, I need to disclose you're a Romney supporter, so -- and adviser.

So let me start with you. We're going to go exactly what needs to happen tonight. Your guy, Mitt Romney, has been under intense scrutiny for his taxes, for being a successful businessman. What does he need to do to make people feel comfortable with and want to vote for him Saturday?

KEVIN MADDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLIC AFFARIS, JDA FRONTLINE: Well, I think three things. And I think the first two are related. I think the first thing he has to do is go out and make the case that he's the best candidate right now to fix the economy. From the coastal part of this state, all the way inland, every one of these voters, their number one concern overwhelmingly is the economy. So, they want to know that somebody is going to -- they're going to be voting for somebody who knows how to fix it.

I think the second part, at least the second part, which is electability. And it's factoring very heavily in how a lot of these Republican voters now are looking at these candidates. And I think because he's the best candidate on the economy, Governor Romney can make the case that he's best positioned to beat Barack Obama in the general election, because that's what Republican voters want the most.

I think third is he has been under attack this week. He's going to continue to be under attack. Whether it's the moderators spurring the other candidates to go after him, or the other candidates taking that opportunity, he has to show poise against those attacks because that's what folks are going to want to see in a president.

BURNETT: Does he need to say -- this is a difficult situation. There's a lot of complexity about his taxes. Some of the tax breaks in there I don't really think are fair. They're certainly legal, but, you know, wish no one could take advantage of them. Some of them are very standard and very normal and everybody would agree them. But it's really hard to say you're at 15 when everyone thinks that they pay more.

How does he address that in way that's not like I'm this guy with all this money and you don't? I'm the relatable guy. How does he cope with that?

MADDEN: Well, I think he acknowledges he is going to have a level of closure, and that all these details are going to come out he'll make that very clear. But I think most importantly, what is he going to do as president? How is he going to reform everybody else's taxes so that they're lower and flatter and --

BURNETT: He's going to say I want a fair system. I don't want it to --

MADDEN: Look, ultimately, elections are about the future. They're a contest for the future. So if he talks about what he's going to do to help American, their taxes, how he's going to help the economy, that puts him in a much better place.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: This is a Republican primary. In Republican primary, everyone wants lower taxes. So, this hurts him less than if it were a general election right now, I believe.

BURNETT: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: You don't think he has to really defend the rate.

BORGER: I think he does, but I think it hurts him less than you think.

BURNETT: All right.

DAVID FRUM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Americans have elected rich presidents before, often.

BURNETT: In fact, our presidents are all rich, pretty much.

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: From the point of view of the typical voter who makes $49,000, the difference in Barack Obama's $7 million and Mitt Romney's $250 million, it looks like a big number on the page, but it's equally remote.

BURNETT: Fair point. Yes.

FRUM: Candidates breakthrough that when they show I'm not just about me. I'm about you. And that is a place where Mitt Romney has been weak so far. And that relates to -- I think one thing he must not do tonight and one thing he must do. This primary has driven him too far to the right in all kinds of respect.

Tonight, he's going to be under pressure. He's in a conservative state. He may be tempted to take another fatal step, like endorsing the Ryan plan or even worse. He needs to fierce through that --

BORGER: He's done all of that.

FRUM: He remains, he has the least regressive tax plan of any of the candidates and even on the any of the surviving candidates --

BURNETT: I was looking, it's very similar to Barack Obama, in certain key ways. I noticed it doesn't help you in the primary.

BORGER: Right.

BURNETT: But it is a progressive tax plan. It's more progressive, actually, give him credit for this, on capital gains than anyone body else running in there.

FRUM: He needs to go past it and say, I understand what it's like not to be me and that has been one of the things we've been wondering about.

BURNETT: All right. Now, let's talk about Newt.

BORGER: Yes.

BURNETT: OK. Newt's problem is just as tough as Mitt Romney's problem. BORGER: Yes.

BURNETT: And it's on the personal side, so one could argue it's tougher.

BORGER: Well, he's got a bunch of problems. First of all, he's been running as somebody who's quite conservative, and a lot of people say he's not that conservative if you look. He supported health care mandates.

So, the first thing he has to do is say, I'm conservative, I'm very rational, and I'm really a dependable person, because what the Romney campaign is saying is this person is not dependable, he governed in chaos and forget about it. So, number one.

BURNETT: Yes.

BORGER: Number two, I think he needs to talk taxes. And I bet he will take it to Romney on taxes and say, OK, everybody needs to have that low 15 percent rate. He's made some headway on the tax issue. I think he'll challenge Governor Romney to release his tax returns. Maybe the governor will release it sooner than April, seems to me there's been a debate going on in the campaign about that.

So maybe he will. He's smiling. OK.

And then number three, I think when family values comes up, as I'm sure it will.

BURNETT: Right.

BORGER: I think he needs to respond not in anger but with a certain amount of contrition. And say, this has been my past. There are things I've done that I apologize. I don't know if it's going to fly.

BURNETT: You're shaking your head.

FRUM: If he's talking like that, he's losing. I would say he needs to do -- I would suggest the opposite approach. If the question is which of these guys would make a better more responsible, more grown-up president, which would you rather have as a dad, a friend, a neighbor? Newt Gingrich -- that's the comparison Newt Gingrich loses.

The only way he wins is he has to knock Mitt Romney off the stage. He has to say, you have no choice except me, Santorum or Ron Paul.

BORGER: But then he has to say I'm more conservative than you are, release your tax returns.

BURNETT: See, this is what -- I brought this up earlier. South Carolina the past two weeks has been pretty clear, women have preferred Mitt Romney all the way through. And I don't know that this is --

BORGER: Two to one in this state -- I'm sorry, not two to one --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: I'm sorry, not two to one. In Gingrich's numbers, men outweigh women two to one.

BURNETT: That's right. Yes?

MADDEN: Governor Romney's winning across many of these different demographics.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDOW: But he's winning because he's talking about the economy. He's talking about the future. He's talking about what he's going to do to turn the country around.

He's crystallizing, I think, right now. I think that's what's going to happen in this debate. He's going to crystallize the choice before a lot of these voters -- who we're going to elect as our nominee to go up against President Obama? And I think he's winning women, men, conservatives, Tea Party, not Tea Party because he's talking about the economy.

He's going to talk about he's going to reform Washington.

I think the reason that Speaker Gingrich comes under indictment by a lot of these voters because of that is because he is a creature of Washington. He's not going to be able to challenge the status quo when he's been essentially working out of K Street for a while.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thanks to all three of you. We appreciate it. Interesting how different people, different backgrounds, can have different views on what they should say. They don't have easy jobs in there.

Well, thanks very much to all three of you and, of course, we are less than 10 minutes away from the debate. John King getting ready to ask all these tough questions of the candidates.

Wolf Blitzer OUTFRONT next. We'll debate preview Wolf's view of what they need to say to win.

We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: All right. You are looking at a live picture of the CNN's debate stage where the four remaining Republican candidates are going to be facing off in just a couple of moments, as you can see -- just a few moments away.

Wolf Blitzer has moderated a lot of these debates and he's OUTFRONT. And this is going to be one exciting debate to watch.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I think the kid gloves are going to come off. I'd be surprised if they don't. It's one thing for these candidates to be critical, very critical, biting, hammering another candidate when they're talking to you or me or a journalist.

It's a lot more difficult when the candidate is standing right next to him and they have to look in their eyes and say, you are bad. And I disagree with you. It's a lot more difficult.

But if they don't do it tonight, they'll probably miss an opportunity.

So I suspect it's going to get intense.

BURNETT: All right. So you and I were talking in the commercial, but obviously Romney's got all this focus on the taxes and that side. And then Newt Gingrich obviously has these personal questions which has risen again.

Which of those is worse, I guess? Which of those is harder to deal with?

BLITZER: I think Newt Gingrich problem's a lot more difficult to deal with. It's such a personal thing that's going on right now. You know, his second wife is making these accusations. I suspect it potentially can hurt him. And it comes at a really awful time for him because since the last debate Monday night, he has really surged here in South Carolina.

BURNETT: Surged.

BLITZER: He's narrowing that gap. He potentially could win on Saturday.

You know, South Carolina is to Georgia what New Hampshire is to Massachusetts, you know? So, he does have a base here. It's very close to his home state of Georgia. So, if Mitt Romney can do well in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich should be able to do well here in South Carolina.

But these last-minute assertions could hurt him.

BURNETT: And I know there's been conventional wisdom that, OK, Rick Perry getting out, trying to be a statesman, obviously, hand his support over to Newt Gingrich, will it go that way, is it quite that simple?

BLITZER: I think most of his supporters here in South Carolina probably will go for Newt Gingrich. Some will go for Rick Santorum. Very few will go for Mitt Romney I suspect. Some -- maybe a few for Ron Paul but not many.

I think Rick Perry dropping out, that's good news, by and large, for Newt Gingrich. But I got to tell you, he was only doing maybe 5 percent or 6 percent, Rick Perry, in South Carolina. So, it's not like a whole lot of votes. But if it's close, it could make a difference. BURNETT: All right. And what if Romney comes out and says, I'm going to put my tax returns out, I'm putting them out this year, and I'm putting them out a few other years too and he's firm and strong on that.

BLITZER: Yes.

BURNETT: Does that do it for him? Because obviously, he's still going to have this issue of the fact that he's wealthy and obviously most Americans aren't --

BLITZER: Everybody knows he's wealthy.

BURNETT: Fifteen percent is a hard --

BLITZER: Everybody knows he's worth $250 million. And he's paying 15 percent on long-term capital gains, that's the law. He's not breaking any law.

BURNETT: Right.

BLITZER: If he's keeping some money, I don't know, the Cayman Islands, that's not illegal, you can do that.

BURNETT: No, it's not.

BLITZER: But politically, it might cause him some aggravation. But I don't know. I would agree with Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. He's a strong supporter of Mitt Romney -- just do it, get it over with.

BURNETT: Right. The Cayman Island thing is interesting. You know, it's like one of the largest holders of U.S. treasuries because so many U.S. funds are domicile there. So, that is certainly not an uncommon thing.

BLITZER: I don't know how it plays with, you know, rank and file. But they all know he's very rich to begin with. So, they sort of discounted that.

BURNETT: Yes. All right. What about Rick Santorum? You're in Santorum Express today, by the way.

BLITZER: You know, he's got a nice sweater vest, as you know, he likes to wear that. I was going to go -- when interviewed him, I was going to wear one too, but I thought maybe that wouldn't work.

He's got his hands full. But I think he's going to come out swinging tonight.

BURNETT: Wolf Blitzer in a sweater vest might be the headline of the night.