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JOHN KING, USA

Republicans Prepare to Debate in South Carolina; Interview With Ohio Senator Rob Portman; Interview with Congressman Tim Scott

Aired January 19, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening. We're live tonight from Charleston, South Carolina. I'm John King.

Just two hours from our Southern Republican presidential debate. And what a night to debate.

We now know Rick Santorum won Iowa, not Mitt Romney. We also have just four podiums on that debate stage. And we will bring you the inside story of just why Rick Perry dropped out today and decided to immediately endorse Newt Gingrich.

And we know here in South Carolina the race is a dead heat, raising the already high stakes of tonight's final showdown.

As we said, just two hours from now, tonight's debate comes at a crucial point for the Republican candidates and for the Republican Party. Just days ago, South Carolina looked like it could be the third punch of a one, two, three Mitt Romney primary knockout. But this morning, Ohio's Republicans took away Romney's first win, announcing Rick Santorum won the caucuses by 34 votes.

Then, Governor Rick Perry of Texas pulled out of the race and immediately endorsed Newt Gingrich who's been surging in several new South Carolina polls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: A conservative visionary who can transform our country.

We've had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have, and Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my Christian faith.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That redemption remark from Governor Perry an apparent reference to new allegations from the former speaker's second ex-wife. In interviews with "The Washington Post" and ABC News, Marianne Gingrich accuses her husband of once coming to her and asking for an "open marriage." Here's what she told ABC's Brian Ross.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIANNE GINGRICH, FORMER WIFE OF NEWT GINGRICH: I said to him, "Newt, we have been married a long time."

And he said, "Yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do."

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: What was he saying to you, do you think?

M. GINGRICH: He was asking to have an open marriage. And I refused.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Marianne Gingrich also used that term open marriage in an interview conducted just today with "The Washington Post"'s James Grimaldi.

I spoke with James a short time ago and I asked him about that part of the interview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES GRIMALDI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Newt Gingrich said that he wanted to be able to see someone else. He never used Callista's name.

And he said, the problem -- she said no. And he said, well, the problem with you is you want me all to yourself. And she said, well, that's what a marriage is. And he said, well, Callista doesn't have a problem with it. And she said she refused, she would not go along with that. And from that point forward and later on, they basically got their divorce lawyers and moved on. And then he stopped talking to her.

KING: That is a new term. Open marriage she did not use. But a lot of this, she did discuss with "Esquire" magazine in an interview some time ago. The obvious question people have in the political context is why now? Why 48 hours before the people of South Carolina votes has Marianne Gingrich decided to come out and air her grievances with her former husband?

GRIMALDI: Well, she'd been grappling with this for several months. She'd been approached by a lot of reporters.

And she decided that it was unavoidable. At least that's what she told me. She felt like it was not something that she could refuse to answer anymore. Plus, like any good politician, and she was a politician's spouse for a long time, she knows that you got to get your story out there before other people do define you. And she felt like she was sort of being defined through whisper campaigns.

She felt she'd been discussed on one conservative radio show that she'd heard. And she wanted to get her story out there, so she could tell her side of it and avoid perhaps any mud that might be thrown her way. She wanted people to know it wasn't her initiation. She didn't feel it was her fault. And she wanted to tell her side of the story.

KING: Politics, as you know and as she knows, can be a dirty business sometimes. Any indication at all that this is anything but Marianne Gingrich making a personal decision on her own to come forward? Any hints, any suggestion that perhaps a Gingrich rival, a Gingrich critic could have encouraged her?

GRIMALDI: Well, I don't know. That's a good question.

She certainly didn't share that with me in my discussions. I felt -- and I have talked to her for more than a month now -- I felt like she was really grappling with the decision about whether to do it. She really didn't want to be brought into it.

I think if Newt Gingrich had made amends or had ever said he was sorry for what had happened, that maybe she would have felt differently.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: A big day, a big day in politics.

You heard there an account of Marianne Gingrich's allegations. Rick Santorum finds out this morning he won the Iowa caucuses, not Mitt Romney. The Texas governor, Rick Perry, as we noted, out of the race. He endorses Speaker Gingrich.

A lot to discuss now as the candidates prepare to take the debate stage tonight.

I'm joined now by our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and our senior correspondent, Dana Bash.

Gloria, let's start with Marianne Gingrich's allegations. The question you ask -- and I ask about the timing now -- they come out just before South Carolina votes -- what is the potential impact? Any negative impact among South Carolina voters?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there is a potential negative impact.

This is, of course, very close to the election. So it may be coming too late to have a large impact. But when you think about Newt Gingrich and you look at our recent poll in South Carolina, we see he has twice as much support among men as he does in women. So he's already got women sort of skeptical. They know that he's had three marriages.

And let's be honest. When a woman hears the word open marriage, when a wife hears that, it's usually not good news. And I think women will react skeptically to it. But again, how much impact it's going to have in South Carolina is really an open question.

KING: Perhaps politically one of the reasons he had his two daughters come out with the first statement here, to try to have his daughters speaking for him.

BORGER: Sure. KING: Let's listen a bit. The former speaker wants them to take the lead here. But he did speak to this today. Let's listen to the former speaker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am 68 years old. I am a grandfather. We entered this race. And we had to think this through for a year because we knew we'd get beaten up. We knew we'd get lied about. We knew we'd get smeared. We knew we'd get nasty attack ads. We decided the country was worth the pain. Now people have got to decide.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: They decide here in 48 hours.

What about a backlash? What about people saying, hey, wait a minute? What about the timing here?

BORGER: It could be. And it could be the media who is out to get Newt Gingrich is releasing this at this particular time.

We're told that there were internal debates for example at ABC News about whether to release it now. So there could be a backlash. And people could also question her, saying why is Marianne Gingrich doing this now and why is she colluding with the elite media? He might say that.

What he does say, though, is interesting, which is, I'm a grandfather. This happened a very long time ago. This has been discounted. Let's move to the future.

KING: And helping him deal with the story here is this immediate endorsement from Governor Perry, Dana. He gets out this morning. He faces reality. He gets up and getting out and quickly not only endorsing Speaker Gingrich, but saying sure he's not perfect, but let's be Christians and believe in redemption. Take us inside that story.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Really interesting, because Rick Perry we understand from sources made his decision last night to get out of the race.

But it wasn't clear at that point whether or not he was going to endorse anybody. I'm told if he were going to endorse anybody, it would have been Newt Gingrich because they are good friends. They have been friends for years and years.

They genuinely like each, though you wouldn't know that from watching some of the debates over the past few weeks. But in any event, it wasn't until this morning I'm told that he formally decided that he was going to back Newt Gingrich. At the beginning, actually, we were told by sources that maybe he would give him a pat or he would just say that he would campaign for him. But he decided to do a full-throated endorsement. And I thought it was absolutely fascinating that he in the next breath talked about the fact that Christians need to forgive. He went right to the heart of the weakness that Newt Gingrich has with the voters.

KING: And this is a day Rick Santorum hoped to be getting a lot of attention for the fact that he won in Iowa. Instead he has to deal with Governor Perry getting out, these headlines about Speaker Gingrich. Do they help or do they hurt? We will see what the voters of South Carolina decide.

But you asked him about whether again Rick Perry courting evangelical votes here. That's Rick Santorum's base as well. Let's listen to Senator Santorum talking about Governor Perry's exit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I actually never did call Governor Perry. I found out that he was going to drop out of the race this morning. It was announced immediately thereafter that he was going to endorse Newt. I thought, well, that's his prerogative.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He made clear, Senator Santorum did in an interview with Wolf Blitzer a bit earlier ago that he's in no matter what happens here. He knows the polling, Romney and Gingrich at the top, right now Santorum and Paul in the next tier there.

What's your sense of his take and his stakes as he prepares for this debate tonight?

BASH: They're huge, they're absolutely huge. He has the ability to stay in the race now regardless of what happens here because he is getting some money. In fact even though he didn't get the Perry endorsement, the Santorum campaign aides that I talked to today insist that he is getting some of Perry's money people, of course.

If Perry didn't have -- he didn't have a lot going for him, but one thing he for him was money. He has a good donor list. So they are getting some of that. Rick Santorum has already purchased ad time in Florida to signal that, no matter what happens, this isn't over. But the stakes are absolutely huge for him here, because the entire evangelical elite, they endorsed him. They put all of their eggs in his basket.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: And he's the values -- or sees himself as the values candidate. So I wouldn't be surprised if he's the one to go after Newt Gingrich tonight on the values issue.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: We will watch that.

Gloria and Dana, thank you.

You see the North Charleston Coliseum behind us, as well as the CNN Express.

This reminder. Don't go anywhere. Be sure to watch the Southern Republican presidential debate. It begins tonight at 8:00 Eastern, the last debate before this weekend's critical South Carolina primary. That debate only right here on CNN.

Let's take you behind the scenes. I went behind them earlier today to get a tour of the setup to see how inside the hall is taking shape. Have a peek.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Give you a peek of what we're going to see here.

We will start the program right here. But you see our beautiful stage is set up. Four. Then there were four, I guess we would say. We have five in here at sunup this morning. We're down to four now. That's because of Governor Perry.

Governor Perry was going to be to my left here. Instead we will have Senator Santorum, Governor Romney, Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul. So the four remaining candidates will be up here. It's a little bit more cozy. There were seven candidates when I moderated back in June. There have been eight candidates at some of the debates. Now we're down to just four.

The stage might look a bit familiar. I will come over this way during the debate at some points as I wander over here. We're going to take questions from our audience. We can turn down to our audience and have them participate.

We also are taking questions. We're asking questions from our viewers online in the Twitterverse, on Facebook, at CNN.com. I will stand here. We have a big monitor across the hall, where we can read those questions and put them to the candidates tonight.

As you can see, it's a bit cozy up here in the sense that we have got more room. We have got a little bit more space, the four candidates in here. They will come out here at the very beginning of our debate tonight. We will introduce the candidates and they will come in from backstage, come out.

They get a chance first -- many of you have seen this before -- just to mingle, say hello to each other, to say good evening, to interact with the audience just a little bit at the top. We will have a pledge of allegiance. We will have the national anthem. I will give the official business, go through the rules a little bit so the candidates can get comfortable at their podiums.

Often, you see some of them scribbling down a few pre-debate notes and we will get to it, we will get to it and we will ask questions. I will ask some questions, some questions from the audience. We will go out to social media as well -- 35 hours from when we start this debate until the people of South Carolina cast their ballots.

So it's a consequential time, down to four candidates. Tonight's a fun night.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Well, a peek behind the scenes there.

Our crew has done a fabulous job taking the North Charleston Coliseum. It's a hockey arena, basketball arena. It's a debate hall tonight.

Up next here, the man who has helped Republican presidents and would-be presidents prepare for these high-stakes debates. The Ohio Senator Rob Portman right here -- we will ask him why he endorsed Mitt Romney today and get a few debate tips.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Less than two hours away from our big debate here in Charleston, South Carolina.

Let's talk now to a man who knows a lot about the pressure of presidential debates. He's Senator Rob Portman from Ohio. In campaigns past, he's advised Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John McCain on their presidential debates, at times playing a stand-in for their opponents.

This morning, just a few miles from here, Senator Portman decided to throw his support to the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Senator Portman with me here in Charleston.

You endorsed Romney today.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: I did.

KING: I want to get behind the curtain of your past experience helping people for debates.

But, as you know, one of the reasons, if look at the polls, there's Gingrich surge here, a lot of people trace it to a not-so- sure-footed performance by Governor Romney Monday night. He's been a relatively consistent debater, but Monday night was not his best performance. What does he need to do tonight?

PORTMAN: Look, I think he will be fine tonight. He needs to be relaxed and be himself. He needs to be sure he gets his message out.

As the moderator -- this frustrates you, I know -- but you have got to be sure, regardless of what the question is, you be sure that your positions are getting out there and communicated clearly. So I think he will do well tonight. He seemed very relaxed when I saw him earlier today. This is going to be a very close contest. But I think a lot of folks will be tuning in tonight.

KING: Well, one of the questions -- and if you look deep into the polling data, one of the potential turning points here in South Carolina is, Governor Romney says, I will release my taxes eventually. And he sort of -- first, he said he wasn't going to release them. Then he said he might release them. Now he says he will release them eventually.

Another top Romney surrogate, Chris Christie, the governor of Jersey, says, you know what, Governor Romney, get it out. If it's an issue, get it out.

Should he get them out?

PORTMAN: I think he's been pretty consistent about it, John.

From what I understand, he said, I'm going to do it in April, like other Americans do when do I my taxes. And that's traditionally what happens every four years. The presidential candidates in April...

KING: You have been in politics awhile, though. If it's hurting you right now, can you wait until April?

PORTMAN: Well, I think as long as he stays consistent on that message that that's what he's going to do. We will see what happens by April.

I mean, but in the primary, we will have moved along. We will have Super Tuesday behind us. But I think he can be consistent and do just fine.

KING: We have known each other a long time. And in campaigns past, you have been the stand-in. You have played Barack Obama. You have played Al Gore. I believe you have played Joe Biden. And you were just telling me before we came during the break that you once played Hillary Clinton in a Senate debate with Rick Lazio, who ran against her.

What is that like to assume somebody else's identity in a debate prep?

PORTMAN: It's sometimes very difficult, because you're not quite sure if you're playing yourself or somebody else.

But, look, it's also great to find out what the other side is thinking. And in the case of Barack Obama, I feel like I know the guy pretty well. Now I'm a U.S. senator on the Republican side of the aisle. And when I see the president, I sort of have a kinship with him. Same with Joe Lieberman, who's one of my colleagues, who I played also.

But it's an exciting opportunity to get... (CROSSTALK)

KING: There are some who say you might not have that opportunity to play President Obama this time, because you would be high on anybody's list for a vice presidential candidate.

Has that come up with Governor Romney at all?

PORTMAN: It has not. It has not.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: If the Republican nominee, whatever his name was, called Rob Portman and said, I need you, would you serve in that role?

PORTMAN: I think I would say, I can help you most by winning Ohio, by being a good senator.

And whoever gets elected -- and I hope it will be Mitt Romney -- we have got a lot of work to do. John, We have got an economy that is in tough shape. We have got to deal with this deficit and debt. And whoever it is, is going to need some allies on Capitol Hill. And I intend to be one of those.

KING: I suspect we may have this conversation down the road.

Senator Portman, it was good to see you tonight. Have a great debate. Great to be with you. Take care, sir.

PORTMAN: All right.

KING: And up next: adding injury to insult for Tim Tebow. Not only did his Denver Broncos lose last weekend -- that was to my New England Patriots -- it turns out, though, Mr. Tebow seriously hurt, but kept playing.

Plus, President Obama takes his new push for tourism to Florida's Walt Disney World, a backdrop Mitt Romney just couldn't resist today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's obviously appropriate, because he's been living in a sort of fantasyland these last few years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: And hope you at home watching, I hope you will stay with us, because we're expecting the candidates for tonight's debate to start arriving any minute now. You see the North Charleston Coliseum behind me. They each have a green room down below. That's our debate hall, looking shiny and nice.

And if you think the debates and the TV commercials are rough, we're going to show you some of the things arriving in South Carolinians' mailboxes in these final hours. The word ouch applies.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: It's a big night in presidential politics, just 90 minutes away now from tonight's Southern Republican presidential debate. You will see it right here only on CNN.

And in the half-hour ahead, we should see the candidates begin to arrive at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Some of the nastiest, most personal attacks of the campaign, guess what, they're not on the television commercials. They are coming to South Carolinians in the mail. We will show you.

Also, CNN's Fareed Zakaria joins me to discuss his new interview with President Obama. They talked about jobs, Iran, the global standing of the United States, and the role of foreign policy in the campaign to come.

It has been to say the least a rocky day for the Mitt Romney campaign. First thing this morning, Iowa Republicans announced a new vote count showing Rick Santorum, not Governor Romney, won the Iowa caucuses. A Santorum spokesman says Romney phoned the former senator today to concede, although Romney campaign statements called the Iowa results -- quote -- "a virtual tie."

Later, Governor Rick Perry of Texas dropped out of the presidential race and immediately endorsed former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

CNN's Jim Acosta is following the Romney campaign.

Jim, how do they make this -- how do they make of this day here when you're going into a big debate, you're trying to keep your focus on the debate and you have a number of developments, Iowa, then Rick Perry? How are they dealing with all the bouncing balls?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it's worth pointing out that at 6:00 this morning, Mitt Romney put out a statement calling the results out in Iowa a virtual tie.

And then a few hours later, at his event in North Charleston, we tried to ask him a question about what happened out in Iowa, the fact that Rick Santorum came out on top. He walked right past our cameras. We made repeated attempts to ask him about this, and he just blew past us and got in his car and left at the end of the event. And then later on this afternoon, the Santorum people say Mitt Romney called them to concede to the former Pennsylvania senator, the results out in Iowa. But the Romney campaign fired back and said, "No, this was not a call to concede. It was a call to congratulate."

So there's a little bit of a semantics game going on there between the two campaigns. And it's interesting. It's odd that they handled it this way, John. Because you'll recall after what happened in Ohio and in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney at his first event referred to his eight-vote victory at that time as a squeaker. And that was when John McCain, his top surrogate up in New Hampshire, referred to Mitt Romney as Landslide Romney. So it was an odd way of handling, and I think by this afternoon they realized they had to clean it up, John.

KING: And Jim, do they think it makes a difference? You know, it's a couple weeks ago. Maybe -- maybe Santorum might have done a little better in New Hampshire. Hard to say. Hypothetical, if he was coming out the winner, not a close second. But you think now as you head into a big debate, 48 hours before South Carolina votes, do they think voters will process it and somehow have a reassessment?

ACOSTA: You know, John, I asked this question of a top Romney campaign source at that event earlier today. All he would do is describe the last 24 hours as a crazy day. I think that's putting it mildly.

I think what has happened here, John, is that Mitt Romney has had some missteps down here in South Carolina. Revealing that his effective tax rate is 15 percent obviously is not going over well. The way he fumbled over whether other not he would release his tax returns in that debate on Monday night. Obviously, that was not good.

In New Hampshire he could afford to make these types of mistakes because he was so out in front of the rest of the Republican field. He can't do that down here in South Carolina, John. It is just too close between he and Newt Gingrich. And I think they realize that right now.

I think that's why we saw earlier today Mitt Romney really in his campaign really clamping down on the media and just offering only a few words of response to what was a blockbuster day of developments, John.

KING: Jim Acosta, important reporting from the Romney campaign. Tonight we'll see how the governor performs in the debate tonight. Hi, thank you.

One governor missing from tonight's debate is Rick Perry. He was supposed to take part, but he surprised a lot of us this morning by dropping out of the race, suspending his campaign, and endorsing Newt Gingrich. CNN's Peter Hamby broke that story this morning. Peter is with us live.

Peter, congratulations. It's good work. Take us behind the scenes. What are Perry's people saying? The other day to him, he said it would take a supernatural force to get him out. Just yesterday he said, "No, I'm in at least through Saturday." What happened overnight?

PETER HAMBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Yesterday, they were saying that exactly.

Jon Huntsman, I think, was a factor. Jon Huntsman was going to finish last in South Carolina. With him out of the race, Rick Perry was definitely going to finish last in South Carolina. The numbers were not moving for him, despite all the TV ads and mail they're doing here. He's actually generating big crowds.

But voters, as much as they like him and they like his message, had concluded after watching him in all those debates, that he was not viable. And that was the message we got from the Romney -- or excuse me, the Perry campaign today. They just didn't see a viable path forward, even though they had said, you know, for the last two weeks, "We're going to go all in in South Carolina."

KING: And so then he decides. A very proud man, he decides let's get out now before the results.

But then he takes a risky decision, a risky decision anyway, given the Romney advantages, but all the more so given the new reports today questioning Newt Gingrich's character. Rick Perry decides, "I'm going to be up front right out of the box and endorse Newt Gingrich." Why?

HAMBY: Right. Well, first of all, Gingrich is more in keeping with Perry's sort of Tea Party, grassroots brand.

Secondly, it's a relationship, as Dana said earlier, with Gingrich that goes back awhile. And remember, when Gingrich started to run for president, Perry was still governor of Texas not running for president. He let his senior staff go work for Speaker Gingrich. Gingrich wrote the forward to Perry's book. So they have a relationship that Perry, frankly, doesn't have with Rick Santorum and certainly doesn't have with Governor Romney.

KING: You spent a lot of time in this state this cycle, a lot of time in this state last cycle. You know some of the quirkinesses of South Carolina and a lot of our politics in every state, not just here, is done in the mail lately. You see the TV ads, you hear the radio ads, but here's one here I want to bring up. This is about Rick Santorum. Early on, you know, is he going to be a threat here? Look at this on the back here.

This is about Rick Santorum's time in the Senate and is he a pork barrel spender. You see it up there, "Earmark spending out of control: 'I'll defend earmarks'." Essentially, this is the pro- Romney super PAC, I believe, trying to say to the Tea Party voters, "Don't listen to Rick Santorum."

HAMBY: Right. And they've sent out those "Restore the Future with Mitt Romney," now four of these huge mailings drilling Santorum.

KING: Costs money.

HAMBY: It does cost some money. These are expensive. Mail is one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, media efforts you can have in the campaign.

Is it as effective as television? Probably not. I talked to my friend, Sasha Eisenberg, who is writing a book -- he's a journalist -- about nerd science of campaigns. And I said, how effective is it? There's no really way to measure how effective it is, unless it's turnout mail and you can actually count how many people are going to the. But you do get some of the nastier attacks in the mail.

HAMBY: You go into the house when you visit voters, sometimes they're sitting on a table. They say they don't pay attention, they don't pay attention, but they sit there for days.

Here's one from Ron Paul. And one of the ways you know it's an attack mailing. Sometimes if it's a smiling face, it's like a resume mail. If you have this -- I'm going to move this out of the light a little bit -- you see unflattering pictures of President Obama, unflattering picture of Governor Romney, unflattering picture of the speaker. On the back it's Ron Paul 2012. He uses mail as much, if not more, than anybody.

HAMBY: Absolutely. He did in 2008, and he has this time. And he's running the most negative mail campaign by far. I've got friends, voters, my grandmother in Greenville. They send me all the mail. And by far, you get the -- most of it is Ron Paul.

KING: Peter Hamby, great reporting here. Often helps when you've got a great grandmother on the ground to help with the source reporting.

HAMBY: That's the inside source.

KING: With the inside secret to Hamby in South Carolina. Peter, thank you.

President Obama is in New York City tonight for fund raisers and other campaign events, including one at the historic Apollo Theater.

Ramping up for his re-election fight also includes opening up what's been a very private house. The new edition of "TIME" magazine takes us inside Obama's world.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: So let's discuss the commander in chief challenge with Fareed Zakaria, CNN anchor, of course, of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS." Also, a "TIME" magazine editor at large.

And Fareed, you had a chance to have what is a fascinating conversation with the Democratic incumbent, President Obama, about his world view. And I want to begin there. We have a big Republican presidential debate today. And I want to read something from your interview that the president would say is a realistic view of U.S. foreign policy, that some of these Republicans would say is a retreat from where they believe America should stand.

He said, quote, "Countries are once again looking to the United States for leadership. That's not the exact same moment as existed post-World War II. It's an American leadership that recognizes the rise of countries like China and India and Brazil. It's a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources, capacity."

It's that last part that will likely be a sharp contrast in the fall campaign. Republicans don't like to hear a president say "limits on our resources and capacity." Explain what the president means.

ZAKARIA: Well, I think that it's a recognition of reality to begin with in the sense that, in 1945, the United States was 50 percent of global GDP. Fifty percent of the world economy was the United States.

Today we're about 21, 22 percent. Other countries have become important, become powerful, and they want to be heard from. It's not just countries like China but even Turkey. You go to the Middle East, and the Turks have their own ideas and they're not going to be pushed around. Brazil has become incredibly important within Latin America. So Obama recognizes that.

The second piece of this is, I think, that he felt the United States had gotten overcommitted: massive intervention in Iraq, massive intervention in Afghanistan, you know. A huge military footprint around the world. And he wants to pare that back and refocus probably more from nation building to counterterrorism. Just killing the bad guys. I think he has the facts on his side. And more importantly, I think he has the American people on his side.

I think that, while you're going to hear some rhetorical bravado on the part of Republicans, in the general election if I were them, I wouldn't push it too hard. I don't think that there is a great yearning in the United States for a new imperial mission, for another Iraq, for the United States to be re-engaging the world in the way that the Bush administration did. I think people -- people really do believe that the nation building that needs to take place needs to be happening here in the United States.

KING: Well, let's have the conversation in the context of Iran. These Republican candidates tonight, with the exception of Ron Paul, they have been very muscular in their language, very disciplined in saying, Iran will not, if they are elected president, get a nuclear weapon. The rhetoric is more muscular from the Republican side.

Let's look at the policy. Are there actually significant differences in how they would hander that faceoff?

ZAKARIA: Well, it's interesting. Obama has been much tougher on Iran in practice than the Bush administration was. Mainly because they have acted multilaterally. See, we don't actually trade with the Iranians, anyway. So we can't do much more than not trade with them.

What the Obama administration got was they got the Chinese and Russians to sign onto United Nations sanctions. The reason that's important is those tend to be enforced by all countries. They tend to be global sanctions, not just about us.

But much more striking, they've now been able to get the Europeans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the South Koreans to say they will buy less Iranian oil going forward. Iran is going to have a real problem selling its oil and certainly selling it at market price over the next year.

So he's been very tough on them. But he hasn't been as bellicose on the military side. He's always said he'd keep that option on the table. That I think is campaign rhetoric. I certainly think that, if a President Romney confronted the Iranian situation, his policy would probably be almost exactly what Barack Obama's is.

KING: Now, President Obama knows the main thrust of this election will be unemployment, jobs, taxes, spending, the size of government. How comfortable was he in the interview, how interested is he, from your interview with him, to make foreign policy an issue in the campaign, as well? Does he believe it will be a big issue, and does he want to draw those contrasts himself?

ZAKARIA: Oh, he seemed very comfortable talking about foreign policy and very comfortable with the idea of a foreign policy debate.

Look, I think the way he looks at it, he's decimated al Qaeda. The drone attacks have been incredibly successful. The whole counter terrorism strategy which culminated in the killing of Osama bin Laden has been very successful. And in a sense, he's outflanked the Republicans on the right on that issue. He was more aggressive and more successful in counterterrorism.

Meanwhile, he drew down in Iraq, which was a place that, by and large, Americans wanted to get out of. He's beginning to draw down in Afghanistan. I think again something that is broadly popular. So from a purely political point of view, I think he's in a sweet spot.

Now, he's eager to engage, I think, on the other stuff. And as you saw in the interview, he's very eager to engage on deficit reduction and all those other issues. In fact, he got passionate when he was talking about the issue of who is to blame for the breakdown in deficit reduction and the fact that we haven't gotten those big budget deals that people were hoping for.

KING: I suspect we'll get a different perspective from our Republican candidates tonight. But a fascinating conversation, Fareed Zakaria and President Obama. You want to pick up "TIME" or go to TIME.com to see more of it.

Fareed, as always, thanks for your help.

ZAKARIA: Pleasure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: About an hour and 20 minutes now away from tonight's big debate. As we await the candidates' arrivals, stay with us. Much more coverage ahead. Tonight's "Truth" is about the pivotal role these debates have played in a fascinating Republican campaign.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Just about an hour and 15 minutes now until tonight's main event, the Southern Republican Presidential Debate. That debate takes place, the main event, right behind me. The venue you see is the North Charleston Coliseum. We're going to show you now a time-lapsed video. Two hundred or so people in the hardest-working show in the news business, right there. You see that crew working. They've been at it since Saturday.

The North Charleston Coliseum again, the site of our debate tonight, has hosted everything from basketball and hockey to "Wheel of Fortune," "American Idol" auditions to rodeos and concerts. Let's watch that play out a little bit more. They did a fascinating job in that hall tonight and will host perhaps -- perhaps -- the most critical debate of the Republican presidential season.

It's been a little more than an hour now until that debate kicks off. The four remaining candidates facing off just two days before the pivotal South Carolina primary. Yes, I know. Some of you at home have debate fatigue. This is No. 17, after all.

But here's tonight's "Truth." Like it or not the debates have been the driving force in this nomination fight. And the timing and the moment make tonight's perhaps the most consequential of the cycle.

Can Newt Gingrich, for example, move past new character questions and complete a dramatic comeback here in South Carolina. Can Mitt Romney regain his footing and make the case he's the best GOP hope against President Obama in November? Just two of tonight's big questions.

Here to consider the evening and the stakes with us, Republican congressman from South Carolina, Tim Scott. Gina Smith is the senior political reporter for the state newspaper here. And CNN contributor and editor of RedState.com, Erick Erickson.

The big night tonight, Gingrich has been surging in the polls. You know the story that came out today. His second wife launching what I would have to say is just questioning his moral character. Is that an issue for South Carolina voters as we go into the closing hours?

REP. TIM SCOTT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It may indeed be an issue. But the question is the timing of it. There may be actually backlash that comes because some folks are saying that ABC has chosen the Republican nominee they want to see, and so this story may play out in the fight negatively for the other side.

KING: Well, what's your sense of conversations and reporting today? You can see it. As the congressman says you can see this going both ways. The timing is curious.

GINA SMITH, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: I think Gingrich's personal baggage is an old story. When you tell the voters in South Carolina, people bring it up all the time but still seem to like him. They talk about the fact that he's a grandpa now, that they think he's a different man. So I don't know if it's going to have a whole lot of sway here in South Carolina.

KING: If you looked online today, Erick, one of the things when you visit your site, RedState.com, you get the sense of the intensity, the comments. Sometimes they're all pro. Sometimes they're all con. Sometimes it's a mix of everything and a lot of volume. This story did cause a lot of conversation today online.

ERICK ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM: It really did. A lot of people were saying if Perry gets out, they'd go for Newt. Then the story hits and you have the people saying, "Whoa, let's see how this plays out." It will keep some people on the sidelines longer than they otherwise would.

It also puts Rick Santorum in a very interesting spot now. Will evangelicals now go to him? If he drops out, where will his evangelical supporters go?

KING: You mentioned Governor Rick Perry. He drops out this morning. Suspends, technically. That's a legal term. He's out of the race right now. That's so he can do the paperwork, clean up all the fundraising accounting and all that.

But Governor Perry not only gets out, he makes a decision. Knowing what the headlines are today, he makes a decision to endorse Speaker Gingrich. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country. We've had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have. And Newt is not perfect. But who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That takes courage. It takes courage, especially, Erick, when Romney's viewed as the prohibitive favorite, when most Republicans like it or not will tell you if you look at the state of the race now, no matter what happens in South Carolina, I think Romney has the pieces on the chess board that he's probably the nominee. What is behind that? A friendship with Newt Gingrich, animosity towards Mitt Romney, a little bit of both?

ERICKSON: A little bit of everything. The heart of his base, if you were to poll Rick Perry's base and say where would you go? Most of them would say go with Newt. He has always known his base well. He knows Newt Gingrich. Newt wrote the introduction to his book.

And frankly, Newt Gingrich was the only other guy on stage on Monday who was talking about making Washington as inconsequential as possible, which has been Rick Perry's thing. He may be quitting today, but everybody is singing from Rick Perry's song book now about Washington.

KING: Rick Perry's songbook. When he got in the race, you're a Tea Party guy. You came out of the Tea Party movement in 2010. When he got in, he shot up to the lead in the polls here in this state. He was a player in all the national polls. He was a player in Iowa.

He had a couple -- he admits it himself -- a couple of horrible debates, and he made some big gaffes. And the voters, I think, and tell me if you think I'm wrong -- because Republicans are so hungry to beat President Obama, they were less forgiving of those debate gaffes, because they're thinking about October, than perhaps they might have been in an earlier campaign. Right?

SCOTT: No question about it. When you take a look at his performance, and some of the town hall series that we've done, one-on- one with 400 or 500 people, he's fantastic. A 1,000, he's fantastic. Put him on the stage and let him debate, he has not had the experience, and it came across.

Romney's been running for president for four years. It shows. And Perry has been running for the shortest amount of time. Unfortunately, it showed, as well.

KING: If you go back in time four years, a lot of people say this is where we are now in this race. Romney comes in. He was humbled here last time. This time, a lot of people come in and say he's in the John McCain role. He comes out of New Hampshire with a win. He comes down here. The attacks on him, what are they? He's too moderate. He's not conservative. He's not the worthy heir to Ronald Reagan.

But on the right, he has Gingrich and Santorum. Mike Huckabee and Thompson. As you can tell at home -- we're getting a little fly by. We're going to let that sneak right by. We're close to an airport, including a military base, and that's the United States Air Force saying hello. I feel safe. Don't worry about the noise. It's going to quiet down in a little bit. But do we have -- the sound of freedom, there we go.

Do we have a replay in the sense that Romney, who is viewed as a conservative, but not the most conservative candidate in the race, do you have a Huckabee-Thompson in Gingrich and Santorum?

SMITH: Possibly. You're right. Romney had finished a disappointing fourth place here. I think he's learned a lot. He's running an almost flawless campaign this go around, doing a lot better. But there's still sort of that anti-Romney sentiment in South Carolina. A lot of people still don't like him so much. They're sort of grudgingly getting on his side, but I think it's still his race to lose at this point.

KING: It's the last opportunity to appeal directly to a mass audience. There will be a day of campaigning tomorrow before South Carolina votes on Saturday.

You think this will be, because of the stakes and because of the history of this state -- as long as any of us have been in this process, watching this process, covering this process, involved in this process, the winner of South Carolina is the Republican nominee. Maybe that changes, but they all know that's been the history. You think we'll get a "I need to protect myself, be polite and presidential" tonight, or do you think we'll get a little rock 'em, sock 'em?

SCOTT: The race has become so close that this is going to be a rumble in the jungle. There's no doubt about it. You'll see Romney on his game on offense, and you'll see Newt as he's never been before. He was pretty good on Monday.

KING: Newt was pretty good on Monday, by your account. If you go through the path, I think everybody would agree. Democratic strategists certainly agree. The most consistent debater has been Newt Gingrich. One of the reasons he was able to come back from the dead, essentially, when his staff all quit on him in June. Well, stress the irony. They went to Governor Perry. And now of course -- let's leave that one. We'll leave that one.

The second most consistent debater has been Governor Romney. Whether you like his answers or not, in terms of keeping his cool, strategically, counter punching. Monday night was not a characteristically strong Romney performance. And if you look at the polling here in your state, he's paying for it.

SMITH: He got flustered a few times, too. The first time we saw Romney have moments like that, but it was still -- he was still pretty good. I don't think anybody would say that he had any major problems. But he managed to remain looking presidential. Remained to still look like someone who would be the nominee.

Tonight, I wonder if he's going to do that when he's going to be just getting pounded on both sides and not really able to play the attack dog back.

KING: We haven't mentioned Ron Paul. Ron Paul had a significant impact in Iowa. He had a significant impact in New Hampshire. Does he have that level of support here? I know a lot of people, his supporters out there right now are saying why did it take so long to get to Ron Paul? They're a very active, loyal group.

And when people like me say it's hard to see his path to the nomination, we get hammered for it online by his supporters. I've done this seven times now. It's hard to see that. But he has been, I think, more so than many people estimated, he has been an impact player in that race. Does he have it here?

SCOTT: Yes, he does. He's not going to have as much impact as Gingrich is going to have tonight, and Gingrich may take the lead, but he's going to have an impact and you've got to remember, these are proportional races still. Proportional delegates. He doesn't have to be in first place.

KING: You're watching live pictures here. Ann Romney and Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts arriving here. Ben Ginsberg, the gentleman there with his back, he's on the Romney staff right there. Coming into the hall. That's the North Charleston Coliseum, and that is the site of tonight's debate, an hour and about seven minutes away. Erick Erickson, thank you very much. We're going to have a good night tonight, right?

SCOTT: It's going to be a fantastic night.

KING: Are you expecting fireworks?

SMITH: I hope so. It will make great headlines for tomorrow's paper.

KING: Gina, Erick, Congressman Scott, appreciate your time here. Tonight's debate right here in Charleston, South Carolina.

Next, we're going to give you a VIP tour of what it's like -- what it's like to be in the candidate's shoes getting ready.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Back live now in Charleston, South Carolina. A little more than an hour away from the Southern Republican Presidential Debate. Four candidates on stage. That's a big drama. We thought we had five when we woke up this morning. We also learned today Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney, won Iowa. A big day in presidential politics.

You'll see the candidates for two hours on stage tonight. Now, let's take you under the bleachers, behind the stage, where right now, the four candidates, the would-be presidents, are getting ready.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We're underneath the bleachers in the North Charleston Coliseum. No. 1, you can see these halls down here. They are just packed with these cases. It takes a lot of gear to put on a production like this. Our team's been working for days and hours. These guys work incredibly hard.

No. 2, you might know this is a sports arena. So I'm going to show you, just over here, normally, the teams are down here. They play hockey. They play basketball here. It's a locker room, right? Well, tonight, it's not a locker room. This is the holding room for Speaker Gingrich and his team. Small holding room. The speaker, the staff, his family can come in beforehand, have a little water, maybe a little snack. Look over their final debate prep notes.

Speaker Gingrich over here. Come across the hall, this is dressing room one. They also put on performances here. Some of them are locker rooms, some of them are dressing rooms. The performances tonight, this is Congressman Ron Paul's room. As you see inside, let's take a peak inside quickly. What do they get? They get a telephone. They get a little TV set. They've got Internet access in here. There are rest rooms and a number of chairs so they can come in with the staff.

Congressman Paul likes to say he doesn't over prepare for these things. He's done so many. For us to hang around with his grandchildren, his wife, have a little family talk, some conversations with aides and then just a few steps into the debate hall for a very big night in presidential politics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: So a behind-the-scenes look, there it is. A high-stakes night in presidential politics.

I'll be back in just one hour. It's my honor tonight to moderate the Southern Republican Presidential Debate. Hope to see you then. A big night in politics.

Right now, though, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" here. Take it away.