Return to Transcripts main page


Newt Gingrich Rising; Interview With Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Anonymous Cyber Attack

Aired January 20, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: Happening now: With voting less than a day away, Mitt Romney says it's neck and neck in South Carolina. And a key adviser says he could lose.

Newt Gingrich is gaining strength, despite or because of the latest allegations about his personal life.

Mitt Romney is daring her to defend President Obama, so the Democratic chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, joins me this hour to take up the challenge.

Amateur night over at the Apollo Theater. President Obama thrills the audience by channeling in soul singer Al Green. And that's not the only singer he's copied. We have got the video.

Plus, Herman Cain also singing at a bizarre and rather hilarious campaign rally. He's no longer in the race, but the comedian Stephen Colbert is trying to drum up votes anyway, sort of. You have got to see this.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in the CNN Election Center. You're is THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's the final push in the South Carolina. The candidates have tried to squeeze in every minute of campaigning into this, the last day before the primary. As Mitt Romney tries to hold onto a lead, Newt Gingrich is using what could have been a very damaging spotlight on his personal life. But he's trying to turn it around to his advantage.

Let's go live to CNN's Joe Johns. He's in South Carolina. He has got the very latest -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Newt Gingrich just wrapping up an appearance here in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

A huge, high-energy crowd essentially ending what had been a very tumultuous race for South Carolina.


JOHNS (voice-over): The picture of the day was Gingrich's wife, Callista, well-positioned in front of the cameras reading her children's book to kids. It was a jarring contrast with Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne, whose interview with ABC News had roiled the final days of campaigning with her assertion, strongly denied by the former speaker, claiming he wanted an open marriage between himself, Marianne and Callista, with whom he was having an affair at the time.

MARIANNE GINGRICH, FORMER WIFE OF NEWT GINGRICH: He always called me at night. He was always ended with "I love you" while she was there listening.

JOHNS: John King got the reaction of the night when he asked the former speaker about his ex-wife's allegations.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.


N. GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things.

To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.


JOHNS: The former speaker has gotten a long way blasting the media, though this will surely go down as one of his most memorable moments.

The Gingrich method, attacked the premise and the questioner, show indignance and finish strong, effectively changing the subject.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Newt Gingrich won that presidential debate and maybe the South Carolina primary by turning John King's question on its head, going after the vicious negative news media, deflecting attention from his own admitted personal past marital misconduct, and making the press, which is not very popular in Republican circles in a state like South Carolina, the issue.

JOHNS: The allegation by Marianne Gingrich only added to an otherwise disjointed final day of campaigning before the South Carolina primary. The former speaker had to cancel one appearance at a Southern Republican Leadership Conference event in this huge empty space at the College of Charleston because of lack of attendance, though at the very next event he was overheard telling a man with him on this hospital tour in Charleston that he could feel the momentum of the race.


JOHNS: The former speaker again just wrapping up an event here in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He's been unusually tight-lipped here on the campaign trail on last day, as if he has said everything he needed to say last night in the debate -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Joe, thank you.

Coming out of his win in New Hampshire, there was some talk that Mitt Romney could steal -- seal the deal, I should say, becoming unstoppable with a victory in South Carolina, but now, on the eve of the primary, his own advisers say the race is -- quote -- "real tight" and a key Romney strategist said he could even lose South Carolina.

Romney himself speaks carefully about his chances. Listen to this.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, we have a long process ahead of us, 1,150 delegates to get. I sure would like to win South Carolina, but I know that if those polls were right, regardless of who gets the final number, we're both going to get a lot of delegates.

I want as many delegates as I can get. I want the most delegates coming out of South Carolina, but I don't know what the numbers will be. I'm pretty confident, cautiously optimistic.


BLITZER: Romney says the race still looks like it's neck and neck, but he calls that a pretty good spot to be in.

Sometimes, the best defense is to attack. We told you how Newt Gingrich went on the offensive in last night's GOP debate, lashing out when he was asked about an embarrassing allegation from his ex-wife.

Now here's the entire, unedited exchange with the moderator, CNN's John King.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with "The Washington Post." And this story has now gone viral on the Internet.

In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage.

Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

N. GINGRICH: No, but I will.


N. GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.


KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?

N. GINGRICH: Let me finish.

KING: Please.

N. GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things.

N. GINGRICH: To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.


My -- my two daughters -- my two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it, and I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.


KING: As you noted, Mr. Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is a subject of conversation on the campaign. I'm not -- I get your point. I take your point.

N. GINGRICH: John -- John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don't try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it.


Let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor. They're attacking me. I'm sure they'll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul.

I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.



BLITZER: He certainly had the crowd there.

John is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

John, I can't tell you how many people have said to me last night and today, what was John thinking as he was being berated like that by the former speaker?

KING: Look, it's a tough spot to be in, and I understand the former speaker's role. He is a politician. He was playing to that audience. He was answering the question.

He said we brought this into the race. I would make the point his ex-wife brought this into the race. She chose to come forward at this time.

Look, Wolf, this was not an easy decision. We wrestled with this. Number one, the timing was curious. Why did she come forward right before the South Carolina primary? Number two, the speaker has a history. You have moderated debates. You know this. He's done this to you. He's done this to Anderson. He's done this to Chris Wallace. He's done this to the NBC team.

He doesn't like a question, he turns it into an attack on the media. And with the crowds in the debate this year, that applause, it's a good political moment for him. We understood that that was a possibility as well.

In the end, we wrestled with all of this, and we just came down to the simple thing, our jobs as reporters is to ask the about the news. It was the biggest story of the day. We decided -- I decided that we were going to do it. And then we decided don't try to be cute. Don't try to hide it as part of any other discussion. Just ask the speaker.

Look, in this business, you know this, you have to take your lumps. I stand by the decision. I had my job to do. He's a politician. He had his job to do.

BLITZER: You did have a little exchange with the speaker after the debate. You spoke to him privately. Is that right?

KING: He came up to me during the first break. And he said, this is a great debate.

And I leaned in and laughed, and I said, "I thought I was despicable."

And he said, "You know how this works."

And then after the debate, he and Callista both came over to me and said hi. And it was a pleasant conversation. And we revisited a little bit of the back and forth. And, look, he didn't appreciate the question. I understand that. I completely understand that. He did what he thought he needed to do in the room there.

If you listen to what he said, again, we bringing it forward, his ex-wife came forward. Do you and I like wandering -- do any of us like wandering through these kinds of stories? We don't. It was the story of the day. We made the decision. I completely understand and respect anyone who disagrees, saying it doesn't belong in a debate. We wrestled with it. In the end, I think it was the right decision. BLITZER: And a very embarrassing story for him, but he managed to turn it into a potential political gain for him only a couple days before the South Carolina primary, potentially.

KING: There is no question that it's a proven, time-proven, he's done it this debate season over the years, a red meat Republican line, attack the media, say they're trying to protect the Democratic Party, it's a liberal media elite.

He won a lot of applause in that room even from people who are not Newt Gingrich supporters. He had momentum in South Carolina anyway. A lot of people think that this moment helps him in South Carolina. I wasn't trying to help him. I wasn't trying to hurt him. I was trying to ask a question on news of the day.

We will watch this all play out. I had some breakfast with some voters this morning. One of them is a Gingrich supporter. She said she's processed all this, the character questions, and she believes he's the best candidate. Two other undecided voters said they were wrestling with this, and that in the end, he did answer in the end. He said these allegations are false. He called his ex-wife a liar.

Earlier in the day, he did not answer that part of the question. And He did answer her question there. And two undecided voters I talked to this morning said they need to wrestle with that.

BLITZER: And, quickly, Were you surprised that the other three candidates ran away from that story, especially Mitt Romney?

KING: Senator Santorum touched on it briefly, saying character should be an issue in the campaign. He didn't do it directly.

No, given the reaction of the audience in the room, the candidates, and we have seen this in these debates -- the debates have been remarkable to give the candidates time to breathe. With the audience -- we have also seen playing off the audience has become part of the cycle, part of the politics.

BLITZER: John King moderating an excellent debate last night for CNN, thanks very much.

KING: Thank you.

BLITZER: The Republican candidates are hammering at President Obama. Newt Gingrich is talking about his -- quote -- "level of radicalism." We will talk about that and more with the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, the Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She is standing by to join us live.

Plus, a cyber-attack on the Justice Department. Experts believe it was retaliation for a dot-com crackdown.


BLITZER: A hugely popular Web site shut down, sparking a retaliatory cyber attack. It's a major case highlight in the growing debate of copyright piracy on the Internet.

CNN's Brian Todd is standing by. He's got the details.

Brian, what's this all about?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is about the U.S. government essentially declaring war on copyrighted material and the people who trafficked in it. It's led to the arrest of a high profile Internet star half a world away.


TODD (voice-over): At a swank mansion in Auckland, New Zealand, a vintage Cadillac, other high-end vehicles worth millions are hauled away. The man living there arrested, police say, after barricading himself in a safe room and being found next to a shotgun. He calls himself Kim Dotcom, formerly known as Kim Schmitz. And U.S. officials believe he's one of the top content pirates on the Internet.

New Zealand police say this about Kim Dotcom and the three arrested with him.

DET. INSPECTOR GRANT WORMALD, NEW ZEALAND POLICE: They've been arrested on warrants relating to breach of copyright offenses in the United States, money laundering, and racketeering.

TODD: It's one of the U.S. government's biggest antipiracy crackdowns ever. Officials say Kim Dotcom ran the popular file- sharing Web site MegaUpload, a favorite of pop stars who sing its praises in a promotional video.

But officials say MegaUpload was a popular hub for illegal downloaded movies, shows and music, costing copyright holders more $500 million in lost revenue. A man identified by the tech Web site CNET as an attorney for Mega Upload is quoted as saying the government's case is wrong on the merits.

(on camera): Experts say part of MegaUpload's operation is legitimate. People can send non-copyrighted material like personal videos there to be shared with others, but U.S. law enforcement officials say that MegaUpload also allowed people to send links to copyrighted movies like the new "Twilight" film there. Others could then be directed to those links, even if the material is copyrighted, because officials say MegaUpload duplicated those links and paid outside people to stir Internet traffic to the links.

(voice-over): U.S. officials say people at MegaUpload not only knew they had pirated material but helped to distribute it. Federal officials have now shut down MegaUpload's Web site. But when they did that, hack-tivists temporarily knocked the Justice Department's Web site off-line.

(on camera): Are we going to see hacker wars like this officials go after people who allegedly trafficking copyrighted materials?

PETER TOREN, FORMER CYBER CRIME PROSECUTOR: Yes, I definitely we are and I think it's just an example the digital wars that exist all over the world with a whole variety of topics, not just copyrighted material.


TODD: This operation comes as the battle in Congress intensifies over new legislation that would require Internet providers in the U.S. to block sites that offer pirated material. Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, is among the industry supporters of those bills. Internet companies like Google oppose them.

Now, there's been speculation that this operation to take down MegaUpload is timed to coincide with this battle. Justice Department officials tell us this has nothing to do with the piracy legislation, that this investigation has been going on for nearly two years, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, do federal official know how much money these people made from allegedly trafficking this pirated material?

TODD: They say it was a heck of a lot. They say they generated more than $175 million in criminal proceeds. Officials in the U.S. and elsewhere seized about $50 million of assets. But interestingly enough they are three people with MegaUpload who are still out there, still at large.

BLITZER: Uncharted territory in certain degrees. Thanks very much for that, Brian.

TODD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she's standing by live. We're going to ask her about the heated attacks by the Republican candidates on President Obama. Are they crossing a line?


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know we're going to hit it hard from President Obama, but we're going to stuff it down his throat.



BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including a difficult year for the housing market ending on a high note.

Lisa, what's going on?


New data shows an overall gain in home sales in 2011, thanks to a strong end of the year spike. The National Association of Realtors reports the annual sales pace in December hit 4.6 million homes. That's up by a percent from November. At the current pace, there is a six months supply of available homes. And that is the smallest since early 2005.

Check out this amazing video shot yesterday. A fast-moving brush fire is causing mass evacuations near Reno, Nevada. At least 10,000 people are trying to dodge a fire stretching more than 3,000 acres.

Nevada's governor is declaring a state of emergency to free up resources. No deaths are reported.

And listen up. If you're a Kia driver, the car company is recalling more than 140,000 vehicles due to faulty air bags. The defective models are the 2006 through 2008 Optimas and 2007-2008 Rondos. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the driver's side airbag may not properly deploy in a crash. The recall is expected to begin in March, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, thank you.

Mitt Romney dares her to defend President Obama. So the Democratic chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will join me to take up that challenge.

And President Obama singing like Al Green. You need to see it, you need to hear it. What he did at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. We've got the video.

Plus, a wacky campaign rally, featuring the former candidate Herman Cain and the comedian Stephen Colbert. You won't believe what they're up to right now.


BLITZER: This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM

Let me update our viewer. It involves Syria. As you know, the United States has maintained diplomatic relations with Syria over these many, many troubled months. More than 5,000 have been killed protesting on the streets of Syria right now.

But we're now learning that the Obama administration is considering closing the United States embassy in Damascus over security concerns, this according to two senior U.S. officials. The embassy only has a handful of staff working with the ambassador, Robert Ford, who recently returned to Damascus. Most of the embassy staff evacuated earlier in the year, the diplomatic team was further reduced last week.

But once again, the U.S. considering closing its embassy in Damascus because of Syria's security concern.

We're going to live to Damascus later. Our own Arwa Damon is on the ground, we'll speak to her. She's been doing some amazing coverage on Syria, but this is a significant development in U.S.- Syrian relations.

Let's move on to some other news, though, right now.

While the Republican candidates have been hitting very hard at one another, they are also lashing out at Obama and they're daring Democrats to defend him.

Joining us now, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, a member of Congress from south Florida, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: I want you to listen to what Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, said about you earlier today. Listen to this.


ROMNEY: This morning on FOX TV, they had the Democratic Party, she -- she was talking about how great things are, what a wonderful job the president has done, how much stronger the economy is. Do you believe that?


ROMNEY: I hope she keeps that message up there. I hope she keeps on talking about a great job he's doing and how many jobs he's created. I hope she keeps talking about that, because if we're talking about his record, he's going to lose.


BLITZER: All right. Madam Chairwoman, go ahead and respond. He's challenging you to keep on talking.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, we must be getting under his skin a bit if he feels the need to bring up the chair of the Democratic National Committee and the things that I say, whether it's against him and his terrible record or in support of President Obama's remarkable record, of bringing us from bleeding 750,000 jobs a month when he first took office, thanks to the failed Republican policies of the past.

Now going forward three years later, we've had 22 straight months of job growth in the private sector. Last month, 200,000 jobs were created in the private sector. Since 1997, we've had more jobs created in manufacturing than since 1997. He rescued the American automobile industry when Mitt Romney would have let it go bankrupt.

So, he can absolutely count on that I will continue to tout President Obama's record on fighting for the middle class, fighting for working families, and beginning to get this economy turned around, compared to the desire and the focus of Mitt Romney, which is to drag us back to the policies that got us into this economic mess in the first place, someone who wants to stand up for people who are already doing well so that they can do even better and to heck with working families.

BLITZER: I don't know if you had a chance -- I don't know if you had a chance to watch the CNN debate last night --


BLITZER: -- you probably did watch it -- but rhetoric was heated, not only amongst the candidates going after each other, but they really went after President Obama. I'm playing a couple of little clips, and I want you to respond. Listen to this.



FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, R-PA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The President of the United States can't cut one penny out of the social welfare system and wants to cut a trillion dollars out of our military and hit our veterans, and that's disgusting.

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know we're going to hit it hard for President Obama, but we're going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.

FORMER REP. NEWT GINGRICH, R-GA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is, I believe, the most dangerous president of our lifetime. And if he is reelected after the disaster he has been, the level of radicalism of his second term will be truly frightening.


BLITZER: So let me ask you this question -- is that kind of rhetoric against a sitting president just politics, business as usual, or is it over the top?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: The rhetoric that the candidates running for president on the other side of the aisle used last night was stunning. It was stunning in its outrageousness, and stunning in the goal that they have to say or do anything to get elected, particularly Mitt Romney.

What I thought was the most stunning, though, Wolf, was that when Mitt Romney continued to just play by his own set of rules. I mean, when John King asked him last night if he, like his father, would release 12 years of tax returns, because his father said when he ran for president, that releasing just one year could indicate an anomaly, he had so much conviction in his answer, that he said maybe.

I mean, Mitt Romney has a pattern of a total lack of conviction, a willingness to say or do anything to get elected. I think there will be a dramatic contrast, no matter which one of the Republicans ultimately are their nominee, between President Obama, who's been fighting hard.

And people know that -- and will continue to point out that he's been fighting to make sure that we can balance the cuts that we know we need to make to reduce our deficit, at the same time making sure that everyone in America pays their fair share, that we have a tax rate that makes sense and that we make sure that people like Mitt Romney's secretary don't pay a higher tax rate than he does.

There are millions of middle-class families, as we learned Tuesday, when Mitt Romney reported that he -- his tax only approaching 15 percent, millions of American families who make far less than he does, pay taxes at a higher rate than Mitt Romney does.

BLITZER: But that --


BLITZER: -- legal about that, long-term capital gains, that's what the rate is, that's the law of the land.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: That's right, there sure isn't, but what's unfortunate and unacceptable is that Mitt Romney refuses to come clean, won't release his tax returns, isn't even committing that once he releases any that he'll release multiple years.

And, you know, at the end of the day, we're not attacking free enterprise. No one begrudges anyone's accomplishments or success. What we do begrudge is a candidate for president like Mitt Romney, who believes that it is only people who are already doing well that deserve a tax policy that helps them.

President Obama has been fighting for a tax policy that allows everyone in America, including the middle class and working families, to be successful and to share in that American dream. That's the dramatic contrast.

BLITZER: You ready to receive all these four Republican candidates in your home state of Florida in the coming days, right after South Carolina?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: We are looking forward to rolling out the red carpet in the Sunshine State.

BLITZER: Probably could use the --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Me especially. I can't wait until they get there.


BLITZER: Well, there will be millions of dollars of commercials on local television stations. I'm sure you'll be happy to accept all those commercials --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: We're looking forward to them boosting the economy in Florida.

BLITZER: Those are expensive media markets. All right, Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: The Republican White House hopefuls aren't the only ones pushing hard. President Obama's stepping up his rhetoric as well. We're going talk about that in our strategy session.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would wake up every single day fighting as hard as I can for you.


OBAMA: I am just as determined now as I was then.


BLITZER: Let's get right to our strategy session. Joining us now are CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona, and the conservative columnist, Will Cain of Newt Gingrich potentially -- he might win South Carolina, and I want to talk about this. But listen to what he said in the debate. Listen to this.


GINGRICH: I think the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.



BLITZER: Pretty effective in that room, Will, but how effective will it be when people vote in South Carolina tomorrow, trying to defuse the accusations coming from his second wife?

WILL CAIN, COLUMNIST, THEBLAZE.COM. I think pretty effective, Wolf. I mean, I think it's hard to say he hadn't had a phenomenal week.

Actually starting with Jon Huntsman dropping out, which winnows the field and makes the debate field smaller for him, on to Perry dropping out and endorsing him, and then John King's question, which, I think inadvertently, actually has -- is going to help Newt. It's going allow people to rally around him. I mean, it's hard not to see how this has just been a phenomenal week for Newt.

Let me say one thing, Newt -- Wolf, there is a silver lining for Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum has had a pretty good week as well. It turns out he won Iowa, and I thought he won the debate, which means the field remains fractured, good for Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: The non-Mitt Romney field remains fractured.

I just left South Carolina, Maria. It looks like the momentum, though, right now, is certainly there in South Carolina with Newt Gingrich.

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, I think that's exactly right, Wolf, and it's happening for him at the right time.

I will say this, though, while I think last night's question and the way he answered it was a home run for him, and he definitely was playing to that audience and it worked very, very well for him, I think it's all going to depend on how many women go out to vote tomorrow.

As you know, he does not do very well with women. He certainly does a lot better with men. And I think it also depends on how many women saw the interview with his ex-wife, and how many of them are going to really think about whether that -- whether that really matters in terms of their social conservative values.

So I still think it's a bit of a question mark, though I think that the momentum is certainly on his side and there is a distinct possibility that he could take South Carolina tomorrow.

BLITZER: And then it opens up the field going into Florida, which is January 31st.

Will, you heard some of the rhetoric really hammering away at President Obama from the Republican candidates in the debate last night.

You heard Newt Gingrich saying a second term would be truly frightening, he's the most dangerous president of our lifetime, Romney talking about stuffing it down his throat, stuff like that. That was pretty heated, the rhetoric. The president was speaking last night at a fund-raiser himself. His rhetoric is a little different. Listen to this.


OBAMA: I said in 2008, I'm not a perfect man. I'm not a perfect president, but I promise you that I've kept that promise I made to you in 2008, I would always tell you what I thought, I would always tell you where I stood, and I would wake up every single day fighting as hard as I can for you. I am just as determined now as I was then.



BLITZER: All right, he's taking a much higher road right now. You don't see him right now slamming any of these potential GOP candidates. W. CAIN: Well, I don't know if I agree with that premise totally, Wolf. I mean, this is the same guy -- he's been on the stump, speech -- he's been giving speeches where he's saying that the other side basically has no compassion for those in the lower -- in the -- and that are poor, in the middle class.

He says we -- that the conservatives, Republicans want to absolutely gut education and infrastructure. I think he's doing a pretty effective job of painting the other side as heartless.

I'll tell you where he does distinguish himself, where he does sound different. Wolf, I really think he sounds different than that guy in 2008. That doesn't sound like the man who stood in the stadium in Denver with thousands of people around him and was upbeat, and hope and change.

That sounds like a man who's trying to sell himself as, yes, imperfect, but still going to work hard for them. That doesn't mean it's not going be effective, it's not going to be effective, it's different, though.

MOLINA: No, here -- here's the --

BLITZER: The difference -- no, hold on, Maria, hold on. The difference, though, he's not mentioning Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, Ron Paul by name. He's talking about the other side.

Now, some of his aides like David Plouffe can say that Mitt Romney doesn't have a core or whatever. He could be pretty tough. That's why you have surrogates, but the difference between the way the Republicans are blasting the president by name, and he's still avoiding mentioning any of these candidates by name, Maria, that's probably a deliberate strategy.

MOLINA: Absolutely. And it's because he doesn't really need to right now, and, frankly I think it's going to be incredibly effective, going into the general election, because what he is doing right now is he's actually focusing on the contrast that this election is going to be about.

He talks constantly about fighting for the middle class, about fighting for workers, about fighting for families, about fighting for veterans and seniors and children.

And, yes, he does make the contrast about how the other side's policies will do everything to fight for the 1 percent, for millionaires and billionaires and people like Mitt Romney, which is why I think he's been so hesitant to give us his tax returns.

And I think that is a contrast that is absolutely a winning contrast going into this general election, where the economy is still very fragile. But it is going in the right direction.

BLITZER: All right, Maria and Will, guys, thank you very much. We'll continue this conversation. Stand by.

MOLINA: Thank you.


BLITZER: Hi, I want to get back to the breaking news. The Obama administration may be severing diplomatic relations with Syria, shutting down the U.S. embassy in Damascus, recalling the U.S. ambassador, Robert Ford. Jill Dougherty is over at the State Department for us.

Jill, what do we know?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN REPORTER: Well, the latest, Wolf, is coming from a senior State Department official, who says that been growing concern about the security of U.S. personnel at that embassy in Damascus, and that the United States, we are told, is asking Syria to provide more security around the embassy.

But the big issue now is they're not quite sure whether the Syrians are going to follow through. It's not a stable situation. It is dangerous, and that's why they're considering pulling out personnel and shutting that embassy.

BLITZER: And there still is a Syrian embassy in Washington, but the ambassador -- the ambassador, Imad Moustapha, he's gone. He's in China now, isn't that right, Jill?

DOUGHERTY: I believe he is, Wolf. And, you know, remember, the U.S. embassy in Damascus has been, up until pretty recently, and one embassy where the ambassador was really out, he was out traveling around the country.

He was -- Robert Ford, he has been carrying the message, liaising, talking with the opposition, a really potent symbol of the United States in its concern for what's going on. So if he were pulled out, it would be very significant.

And it would be -- it would leave the place essentially dark. I mean, right now you're seeing a lot of death and destruction, and without the eyes and ears that the embassy can provide, it could get even worse.

BLITZER: Yes, the United Nations has more than 5,000 people, mostly peaceful protesters, have been killed, thousands have been arrested. They've disappeared, many more have been injured.

All right, Jill, thanks very much. I know you're working your sources. Our own Arwa Damon, by the way, she is in Syria right now. She'll join us live there in our next hour. We'll get some reaction on what's going on.

Also, the President of the United States, President Obama -- soul singer. The president wows a crowd at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater by doing an Al Green impersonation. You're going to hear it.

And what is comedian Stephen Colbert doing at this very bizarre South Carolina campaign rally?


STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: Folks, I'm not hear to pander, because I know I don't need to pander to the most beautiful people in the world.


COLBERT: Can I get an amen?



BLITZER: While the Republicans were sniping at one another, Lisa Sylvester is joining me to discuss this. Lisa, I want you to listen. President Obama was busy raising some campaign funds at Harlem's very famous Apollo Theater. The president followed the legendary soul singer Al Green by crooning a couple lines from Green's megahit, "Let's Stay Together."


OBAMA: (Inaudible) know that Reverend Al Green was here --


OBAMA: I'm so in love with you


OBAMA: Those guys didn't think I would do it. I told you I was going to do it. And the Sandman did not come out. Don't worry, Rev, I cannot sing like you, but I did -- I just wanted to show my appreciation.


BLITZER: He did a nice job, Lisa. Let me remind our viewers, here's a little bit of the real Al Green.



BLITZER: All right. That's the real Al Green. But the president has a pretty good voice.

Lisa, remember this from the 2008 campaign?


OBAMA: And to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, I started singing for her a little bit.

"Chain, chain, chain, chain of fools --"

All right. I wasn't going to do that, but --


BLITZER: Not bad. But maybe he should keep his day job. What do you think -- what do you think, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN REPORTER: I actually thought he was excellent, excellent, particularly with his Al Green. I think there are a lot of people out there saying, who knew that the president, he could actually carry a tune? And I heard you on the conference call, too, Wolf. So I know you can also carry a tune.

BLITZER: I can't do it -- I mean, I like to pretend. But, no, he's definitely got a good Al Green -- Aretha Franklin, maybe not so much, but Al Green, he was very, very cool. I would love to hear him sing a few more bars of that. So maybe he'll do it at some point.


BLITZER: It worked at the Apollo Theater.

SYLVESTER: Yes, the next time you interview him, you're going to have to do -- to ask him to sing personally for you, Wolf. That's a clip that we'll definitely play here in THE SIT ROOM.

BLITZER: I love that song from Al Green, too. It's a great song. All right, Lisa, thanks. Don't go too far away.

Mitt Romney losing ground in South Carolina and beyond on the eve of a critical primary. We have details of what he's saying now about tomorrow's vote, plus the most unusual campaign event of the day.


COLBERT: I am not going to answer the gotcha question -- am I interested in an open marriage? Though I am flattered that Newt Gingrich asked me.




BLITZER: Here's a look at this hour's hot shots. Check it out. In Bali, women prepare offerings to be taken to the sea for a spiritual purification ceremony.

In Sri Lanka, a girl displays gems that are part of the country's booming tourism and business industry.

In India, border security soldiers rehearse a motorcycle stunt for the upcoming Republic Day Parade. And in Hong Kong, a girl in festive clothing looks through a balloon toy at the Chinese New Year flower market. Hot shots -- pictures coming in from around the world.

An unlikely pairing made for a very unusual campaign rally in South Carolina on the primary eve. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who's supposedly exploring a possible White House run, and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race.

Colbert isn't on the ballot, so he says vote for Herman Cain, who says vote for someone else, because he doesn't want any votes wasted. He even threw in a song. Look at this.


COLBERT: I want to thank CNN for letting us squat on their news zone. A special thanks to my dear friend, Anderson Cooper, the Silver Surfer of cable news. Stay fit, my friend.

Before I introduce the man we've all gathered see to introduce me, I want to salute the other candidates in the race. I think people are hungering for a positive campaign, so I'm not going to go after this man's opponents.

I won't be saying things like the only difference between Mitt Romney and a statue of Mitt Romney is that the statue never changes its position. That's not positive, not even to the statue. And it would be wrong to say that if you guess Ron Paul's real name, he has to teach you how to spin straw into gold. I'm not going to do it.

And I am not going to answer the gotcha question -- am I interested in an open marriage, though I am flattered that Newt Gingrich asked me. You see, I didn't come here to criticize anyone. I came here to praise one man, one Her-man. Important note a Her-man is not the same as a she-male. I don't want to frighten off any Santorum supporters.

But Charleston Nation, anybody who knows me knows that I believed in the message of Herman Cain for several days now. And for so many reasons. Herman Cain is a business leader. Herman Cain is a family man, Herman Cain is an outsider, in fact, he is such an outsider he is not even running for president anymore. He's a man with ideas, a man with conviction, a man with a bus with his face on it.

Gandhi didn't have that. I want you to vote for Herman Cain, because Herman Cain is me. We both refuse to play by Washington's rules. We both flout convention, when it comes to things like taxes and debt, and how many bekis there are in U-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. I say three, Herman says four.

HERMAN CAIN, FORMER REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mr. Colbert could not get on the ballot. I could not get off the ballot. That's how this came about. Now Stephen Colbert asked you to vote for Herman Cain. I am going to ask you to not vote for Herman Cain, and here's why. I don't want you to waste your vote. I've got another surprise for you, don't worry. I've got another surprise. Let -- I tell you what I'm going to do. I was not going to let Stephen Colbert show me up singing.

"Believe there's a reason to be, believe you can make time stand still, and know from the moment you try, if you believe, you know you will."


BLITZER: Now that is one extraordinary, extraordinary campaign.