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South Carolina Primary Coverage - 2300 Hour; Gingrich Wins in S.C.

Aired January 21, 2012 - 23:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: And welcome to our special election edition of "A.C. 360." South Carolina voters put their stamp on the race for the White House.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Newt Gingrich seizes the lead as the campaigns head to Florida.


ANNOUNCER: Newt Gingrich is South Carolina's choice.


NEWT GINGRICH, (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you to everyone who decided to be with us and change in Washington.



ANNOUNCER: It's a major blow to Mitt Romney's campaign.


MITT ROMNEY, (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a hard fight because there's so much worth fighting for.


ANNOUNCER: Four Republicans went into this brawl. Who will be standing as the contest moves to Florida? The votes are in. South Carolina has spoken and the biggest battleground yet is still ahead.

COOPER: Welcome to this special edition of "A.C. 360."

Let's take a look at the vote as they are 99 percent reporting. Newt Gingrich -- a commanding victory for Newt Gingrich, 40 percent, 242,000 votes. 74,000, almost 75,000 votes ahead of Mitt Romney, who came in at 28 percent. Rick Santorum at 17 percent. Ron Paul at 13 percent. All the candidates say they are moving forward to Florida. We have reporters stationed throughout South Carolina tonight as we have for the last several weeks, Candy Crowley and Jim Acosta. CNN's Candy Crowley is at Mitt Romney's headquarters. Jim Acosta is at Gingrich headquarters.

Let's start off with Gingrich headquarters.

Jim Acosta, there are still a lot of folks there. Romney headquarters looks like a ghost town. A lot of excitement there at Gingrich headquarters. Does the candidate move to Florida tomorrow?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, we're still waiting to hear about his travel plans. It's been an interesting day watching the Gingrich campaign. This is a candidate who tends to shoot from the hip and from the lip, Anderson. They have been very close to the vest throughout this evening. I did catch up with somebody inside Gingrich world a few moments ago and they were watching the returns come in on the Gingrich bus. I asked were they elated, were they exciting, doing touchdown dances? The answer is no. they were very humbled by the results down here in South Carolina. And, Anderson, I think what happened here is that conservatives in this state, Republicans in the state said they couldn't care less about Newt Gingrich's personal life. What they did care about was a candidate who was taking it to the establishment, taking it to the Republican establishment, not only around the country but here in South Carolina. It was Nikki Haley, the governor of this state, who was on the Mitt Romney team, not on the Newt Gingrich team. He was going after the media, which we talked about again and again, and conservatives like that, as well.

But it was interesting to listen to Newt Gingrich's victory speech here tonight, because it wasn't so much about his rival. We heard him go on and on about Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. This one was about President Obama and what he considers to be a food-stamp president, something that he's said time and again. Here's just a little bit of what he had to say with respect to that line of attack.


GINGRICH: President Obama has been historically the most effective food-stamp president in American history.


GINGRICH: I worked with Ronald Reagan to create jobs, and 16 million jobs were created by the American people in the 1980s. I worked with Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to create jobs, and 11 million jobs were created by the American people during the four years I was speaker.

I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history.


GINGRICH: And I want to go into every neighborhood of every ethnic background in every part of the country and say to people simply, if you want your children to have a life of dependency and food stamps, you have a candidate. It's Barack Obama. If you want your children to have a life of paychecks, you have a candidate. It's Newt Gingrich. And I bet you we have votes everywhere.



ACOSTA: There you have it, Newt Gingrich focusing in on the president, something that his rival Mitt Romney likes to do out on the stump. So we heard some of that from Newt Gingrich tonight.

You asked about what he's doing tomorrow, Anderson. He's going to be on three morning talk shows, including "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley.

Keep in mind, people are talking about Florida being Mitt Romney territory. Newt Gingrich could do very well down in Florida. He's already cultivating ties with the Cuban-American community. And Mitt Romney will have a tough time explaining his opposition to the Dream Act, which is a bill that would lead to a path to citizenship for young Latinos in this country. Newt Gingrich said he's in favor of portions of that bill. Mitt Romney said he would veto that act. And Newt Gingrich would be very popular in the central part of the state. That's Sarah Palin country, and Sarah Palin, she sort of endorsed Newt Gingrich here in South Carolina. So buckle your seat belts -- Anderson?

COOPER: Jim, thanks very much.

Candy Crowley is at Romney headquarters.

It was interesting to hear Governor Romney's speech tonight, talking a lot about Obama, but he did throw a few references towards Newt Gingrich, though not using the candidate by name. We anticipate that is going to change in the next couple of days. He's squarely got to go after Newt Gingrich, right?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And it's clearly one thing he told me and talking to some strategists tonight. They said listen, he's still going to go after President Obama, but Newt Gingrich is now also a target. So they have sort of a two-pronged approach here as they move into Florida, and that was pretty evident when Mitt Romney came out here to thank the people of South Carolina. Take a listen.


ROMNEY: In recent weeks, the choice within our party has also come in to stark focus. President Obama has no experience running a business and no experience running a state. Our party can't be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never run a state.


(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: So obviously, probably with a name attached, you're going to see Mitt Romney going after Newt Gingrich. It's what you do to slow that momentum. They went for a quick change of scenery here, even before Mitt Romney came out here tonight to say thank you. His supporters here were shouting. "Florida, Florida." They do have high hopes and Florida, they keep talking about this is going to be a big week.

Mitt Romney will come out in advance of the president's State of the Union speech Tuesday night. Tuesday morning, Mitt Romney will give what was billed to me as a major speech on the economy, and differentiating himself not just from the president but Newt Gingrich, as well. He will give a similar speech the next day after the president's State of the Union address.

They point out that Mitt Romney has lots of resources. That means money. That he has a lot of staff on the ground. And he has the wherewithal to go the long haul. So you will see him playing the hardball that he started to play here tonight. You will also hear them talk a lot about how they're going to be in state after state after state collecting delegates, because, after all, we tend to forget, as we think maybe it's going to be wrapped up in South Carolina or wrapped up in Florida, this is, after all, a state by state battle for delegates -- Anderson?

COOPER: And it seems tonight that it is going to be a very, very long haul indeed.

Candy Crowley, appreciate it.

Wolf and John King, looking at exit polling numbers, as you have been all night long -- Wolf?

BLITZER: The numbers are fascinating, John. We get a real picture of what was going on in South Carolina, but that doesn't mean the same thing is going to happen in Florida.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Doesn't necessarily, though we've seen the impact of momentum. South Carolina is a more conservative state than Florida. When you look at the scope of the Gingrich victory tonight, and when you're winning by double digits, you tend to win across the electorate. So on the one hand, discount this. On the other hand, let's think about lessons going forward.

Among those who are born again or evangelical Christians, this is two- thirds of the vote. Two-thirds of the vote in South Carolina tonight, Gingrich easily thumping Romney here. It's a big piece of the electorate. A small slice of the electorate in Florida and the panhandle. Gingrich wins among born again, evangelicals. Look at this by ideology. Gingrich carries very conservative voters, somewhat liberal voters. That's a bit odd, but a tiny slice of the electorate. Romney did carry the moderates. There are more moderates in Florida than in South Carolina. Somewhat conservative, Gingrich. This is an area where Romney would have to improve in Florida among somewhat conservatives. If you can win moderates and somewhat conservative voters in Florida, you have a better chance given the demographics in that state.

Then you come over here, Independents could vote in South Carolina. Gingrich carried them and self-identified Republicans. In Florida, it's only Republicans. So Governor Romney is going to have to do better than a 28 percent slice of the pie in the Florida primary to rebound here.

We'll just keep coming across. Every piece of the electorate. This is fascinating. By income. Voters under $30,000, Gingrich. $30,000 to $50,000, Gingrich. $50,000 to 100,000, Gingrich. Only $100,000 to $200,000, Gingrich. Only those $200,000 or more voted for Romney. Some evidence here, number one, they did not buy his pitch that he's the best candidate on the economy. Economy was issue number one. Number two, the Bain Capital attacks and the taxes. The attacks on Governor Romney. He was uncomfortable in the debates about when will you release your taxes, what will you release. Obviously, having an impact across here. A lesson, we're told, the Romney campaign will try to deal more forcefully, I'm told, in more detail with the tax question.

Vote by education. Again, never attended college, Gingrich. Some college, Gingrich. College graduates, Gingrich. Only among post- graduate study went for Romney. The upper slice, if you will, in education.

Across the age demographics, look at this, Ron Paul, his supporters are young. He won the 18-29 and he did it fairly convincingly here with 31 percent. Gingrich, 28 percent. Governor Romney coming in way down there after Rick Santorum. But among the larger groups in the electorate, Gingrich, Gingrich and Gingrich. You just go across. You can just keep going. He keeps winning.

Here's one more I want to show you. Men and women, the electorate was about evenly split. Some thought there would be a gender gap because of the interview with Newt Gingrich's second ex-wife. There was no gender gap. Gingrich 38 percent; Romney, 29 percent. He won among women. He won even more convincingly among men.

And the question, Wolf -- we'll walk over here once second as we move on --- you can see here, this is Newt Gingrich's color. That is a picture of a thumping. Look at 2008 when John McCain carried the state. He won 33 percent to 33 to 30 over Mike Huckabee. You see it split. The conservatives up here. The more moderate to conservative voters in this part of the state. Tonight, Newt Gingrich winning convincingly. The question is, can he take the demographic support among evangelicals, among Tea Party voters, among the middle electorate and bring it into a much more different state here. This will show you. This is McCain, the lighter red. This is Romney, the darker Red. Mike Huckabee, the yellow. Four years ago, pretty good flight in Florida. Romney got 31 percent last time. He does have a foundation in Florida from four years ago. McCain won the state. That was it.

But much more diverse place. But, again, a lot of lessons. A lot of lessons. You can discount because of the size of the Gingrich victory or you can look through those demographics and say Governor Romney has a problem as he moves on.

BLITZER: We have 10 days between now and January 31 when the Florida primary takes place. You think how quickly things can change. only a week or so, not even a week or so ago, that CNN/"Time" magazine/ORC poll we did in Florida showed Mitt Romney crushing Newt Gingrich in Florida. But I don't know if that's accurate now.

KING: At the moment, we have a momentum race and it's a Gingrich momentum. The Tom Foreman with those undecided voters is quite telling. Again, in the national polls, for months, who is the strongest candidate against President Obama? Mitt Romney. South Carolina Republicans tonight said it was Newt Gingrich. Florida undecided voters said they think it's Newt Gingrich. Winning helps you in politics. Winning helps you as you move on. The question is, that 10 days is important. It's not three days, seven days. 10 days gives Mitt Romney a chance with the advertising. We can show you this real quick. Let me come forward to 2012 first. TV ads up in the states right now. TV ads by candidate. That red is Romney. If you add in the super PACs that are spending, if you look right now, all the spending in Florida, as of today, was pro Romney. Count a few hours.



Newt Gingrich is going to get his Super PAC. They're going to be all over the place. There are some rich people who support Newt Gingrich out there and they can give unlimited amounts of money, unlimited amounts of money to the Newt Gingrich super PACs or to the Mitt Romney super PACs, the Rick Santorum super PACs. They've all got their super PACs.

Let's go over to Erin Burnett because she's taking a look at this ad spending as well.

South Carolina was in the millions, no doubt about that, but it's going to be a lot more over the next 10 days in Florida. Tell us about South Carolina first.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: South Carolina, all in. You saw the numbers. Mitt Romney, by far, spending the most money. This is Mitt Romney, including all the super PAC money on his behalf on television ads. $2.7 million. To buy 30 seconds of advertising in South Carolina is $300.

It's a very different story when you look at the state of Florida. Now, here are our four candidates, all going on to Florida. Mitt Romney's campaign has already spent $2.4 million on television ads in Florida. When you add in the Super PAC, $4.9. That's more than he spent obviously in the entire state of South Carolina -- he's already spent in Florida. That's going to buy him a lot of ads. Some of his ads are already playing in Florida. He's got an ad airing in Spanish to try to win over some Hispanic voters.

The real question is, you go to tonight -- I was there a couple of minutes ago. Wolf, what does it say? We want a million dollar money bomb. He's using the Ron Paul term --


BURNETT: -- to try to get more money to buy advertising in Florida. But right now, Mitt Romney is the only one with a television presence in that state. And it's an expensive state.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of major media markets in Florida.

BURNETT: That's right.

BLITZER: As you know, it's not cheap to buy those 30-second 60-second commercials.

All right, I want to go over to Peter Hamby right now. He's one of our political reporters, doing an outstanding job for us covering all these races.

Take us inside, Peter, the Romney camp right now. They must be so upset, so frustrated. Only a few days ago they were poised to win in South Carolina. Didn't happen.

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. I can tell you from my reporting down here in South Carolina, Romney's supporters here, his financial supporters, campaign surrogates, like you just said, they were winning a week ago, and they lost it. There's a sense of, yes, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, but also that Mitt Romney fumbled the ball. There's some griping behind the scenes that the Romney campaign did not handle the tax question well. While Newt Gingrich was soaring in the polls, the Romney campaign cannot punch through that coverage with an aggressive message against Speaker Gingrich, because they were spending five straight days giving a different answer about Mitt Romney's tax returns. While they realized the Gingrich surge, they might not have beat him in the end, they thought they might have had a fighting chance.

I talked to one donor who said, hey, it's time to take the training wheels off the candidate. Let him be himself. Look, there are questions about Mitt Romney's charisma and his ability to connect with voters. But he's showed better political instincts in his campaign than he did in 2008. So you're hearing again from South Carolina some of the folks that really went out on a limb for him in a state that was sort of a risky bet, sort of complaining that they didn't serve -- the campaign staff, Wolf, did not serve the candidate as well as they could have in this final week.

BLITZER: Good points.

Peter Hamby doing some good reporting for us, as he's always doing.

Anderson, let's go back to you.

10 days, a lifetime between now and January 31, the Florida primary.

COOPER: It certainly is a lifetime, especially in this election, as we've seen it over the last couple of weeks. Rick Santorum praising Newt Gingrich on his victory tonight in South Carolina. But Ron Paul a little more hesitant. We'll check in with both candidates after a break.


COOPER: Welcome back to this special primary edition of "A.C. 360."

Here you have it, something we have not seen in the GOP field before, three different winners for three different -- for the caucuses and two different primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Newt Gingrich winning tonight by a commanding lead.

We heard from Rick Santorum a short time ago.

Dana Bash is at Santorum's headquarters in Charleston. She spoke to the candidate earlier before.

Dana, what is Rick Santorum's strategy at this point? Is he hoping that Newt Gingrich does fatal damage to Mitt Romney and then Newt Gingrich does fatal damage to himself?


BASH: I think maybe the last thing you said first. He's expecting Newt Gingrich to do potentially fatal damage to himself.

Look, they are disappointed inside the Rick Santorum campaign that he didn't do better here. But they're effectively saying, this could have been worse, because Mitt Romney could have won.

They understand full well, Anderson, that Rick Santorum is seen as the buffer between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, and specifically Newt Gingrich getting the nomination.

I did have a chance to go into Rick Santorum's war room exclusively earlier tonight and asked him about the results tonight.


RICK SANTORUM, (R), FORMER PENNSYLVANIA SENATOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He kicked butt and I give him a lot of credit. I'm proud of him for what he accomplished. And the great narrative is of this, three days ago, there was an inevitability in this race. Mitt Romney was 2-0, soon to be 3-0. And I took Iowa. Newt took South Carolina. And it's game on again. I can't be more excited for the opportunity now to see this campaign go on. We're going to have it go on for a long time.

BASH: You said Newt Gingrich kicked butt. Why didn't you kick butt?

SANTORUM: Well, you know, we didn't -- we didn't get the bump we really hoped for out of Iowa. We did well, but we didn't win. Yesterday, they determined we won, not quite in time for us to get the kind of bounce that we wanted.


BASH: Now, Santorum aides say he's going to make his attacks on Newt Gingrich even sharper if you can image that. You heard they were pretty sharp in CNN's debate a couple of nights ago. Even sharper in the coming days.

He is going on to Florida. He's already got a couple of events scheduled tomorrow, Anderson, including at a church with about 3,000 people. That is certainly an indication he's going to continue to try to appeal to the Christian conservative, social conservative base, even though that was really the hope that he was going to do well in this state, because such a big part of the electorate in the Republican primary. And that certainly is his appeal. He didn't do very well with those voters here.

But he insists, Anderson, he's going to no only go to Florida next but he's going to focus on the next caucus states, which are Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota. We'll see if he can keep the money flowing in and keep the organization going to really stay in the race that long.

COOPER: Yes, money is critical at this point.

Dana, thank you very much.

Joe Johns is standing by at Congressman Ron Paul headquarters. They just keep chugging right along.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Anderson. The band played on, a very loud band right here. Ron Paul is long gone.

So how did he do? Fourth in a four-person race is not good by election standards. But, by Ron Paul standards, he says he finished with four or five times more volunteers, more votes than he did four years ago when he ran for president. So in his view, that's pretty good. How can he say that? Well, number one, he views this as much as a movement, not just an election, if you will.

Ron Paul, I talked to him earlier, just before CNN went on TV with the projection saying Newt Gingrich would win. I wanted to gauge, if you will, his opinion of Newt Gingrich. So let's listen to this sound bite and I'll talk to you on the other side.


JOHNS: Some people are saying if Newt Gingrich wins tonight, the people at the White House will be very happy and satisfied. What is your view on that? Do you think a win for Newt Gingrich --


-- is bad for the Republican Party?

REP. RON PAUL, (R), TEXAS & PRESIDENTIAL RACE: Well, I don't know whether -- I don't know if I'm going to let you put those words right into my mouth. I think he's going to have a difficult time. But I think any Republican would have a difficult time. That's why I was offering my services because I think that -- and I think that there have been some polls out -- I don't know exactly which company did it, but there was a poll out that said that Paul against Obama does pretty darn well, essentially in a tie. Did as well as Romney has done. So I would say that the other Republicans cannot appeal to civil Libertarians and to the Democratic base, who are sick and tired of Obama with his foreign policy. Of course, the Republicans ought to have a strong appeal to me, because I'm really only the fiscal conservative offering to cut the budget by a trillion dollars.



JOHNS: So clearly, he's still campaigning there. Ron Paul obviously showing no signs of wanting to get out of the race. Telling me that he's going to look at states that award their delegate to the GOP national convention by percentage. Also going to states that have caucuses, where he can use an organization to try to get more delegates, because he says that is the name of the game. Ron Paul showing absolutely no signs of getting out.

The other thing I'm hearing from him is that he plans to buy television ads in states where there are, for example, caucuses and not so much in states where there are primaries such as Florida. So not buying ads in primaries, still going there for debates, mainly focusing on caucus states and states where he thinks he can pick up a percentage of delegates -- Anderson?

COOPER: Joe, thank you very much.

Ron Paul obviously still has a lot of organization and a lot enthusiasm on the ground.

Undecided voters in Florida watching, listening closely tonight to what was happening in South Carolina. Did they make up their minds? Did what they heard tonight change their opinion? You'll hear from them, next.


COOPER: What a night it's been. Welcome back to this special "A.C. 360" primary edition.

Let's take a look at how voters in Florida are leaning 10 days before their own primary. In particular, how tonight might have made a difference in their opinions.

We got a group of undecided voters. Our Tom Foreman has been hanging out with, watching very closely all the candidates. We've been running their real-time reactions, with dial testing under the screen as the candidates have spoken.

Let's talk about, first, their reaction first to Ron Paul -- Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Anderson, we're here at the University of North Florida, which has been very kind to keep us all here tonight for what has been a fascinating evening with all of these voters, which, as you told us earlier, you all came in undecided.

We'll put the hands up again. Look at all the people who now think they're somewhat decided, and I will tell you, Anderson, it's a little squishy because some of them, if you push it, will say, well, maybe not so much.

But Ron Paul seemed to hit a certain note with his audience here. By and large, when you looked at the dial testing, when he went by, people were pretty even here. But there was one area where he seemed to do pretty well. Watch the lines and listen.


REP. RON PAUL, R-TEXAS, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, the evidence has become clear that the efforts by government is failing and we can't depend on the government to take care of us from cradle to grave. We can't depend on the government on its efforts to promote and believe that we can police the world and go into nation building, because we're all going broke.



FOREMAN: That whole theme there of saying over and over again, we can't depend on the government, it's making us broke. It's got to be about something beyond that. That has a real resonance with this crowd here, I think.

Let me talk to this gentleman over here, because I think you had some thoughts on that matter. What do you think when you hear someone like Ron Paul say, look, this can't be about the government solving everything?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think the current government now is on a course of incentive killing and we need to create to where it's pretty much to reward people that work hard for a living ,and get rid of the red tape and for the entrepreneurs out there, that really need to go to work and stop the incentive killing. That's what --

FOREMAN: Well, that's been -- that's been the message from Ron Paul, in many ways, from the beginning.

Are there any Ron Paul supporters here, those of you -- we have some maybes here? Maybe? What do you like about Ron Paul?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like that Ron Paul, he's attacking the institution, he's attacking -- he's attacking what's wrong with the nation, that's been wrong with the nations for years past, just not Obama, what Obama has been doing in the last eight years, but he even goes back further than that and says these are things that have been wrong and he's been fighting for 30 years, as he said tonight.

FOREMAN: But let me ask you one question about this, as a group here, because I have a suspicion about this -- how many of you here think Ron Paul, in all fairness, could ever become the President of the United States? Yes? A couple, maybe?

That, Anderson, seems to be one of the key problems that has been plaguing certainly Mr. Paul from the beginning -- Dr. Paul from the beginning, because, time and again, as we've talked to these groups, people here have talked about electability, the notion that they want to win the White House.

And if it means picking somebody who can win, even if ideologically it doesn't fit exactly, they will do that to make sure they win the White House. That's one of the real goals here. And that's one of the things that certainly Mr. Paul has to fight against.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, AC360: What about reaction to Santorum?

FOREMAN: Yes, it's interesting. The reaction to Rick Santorum was similar to the reaction that we had to Ron Paul, in that there's a lot of flatlining going on, even when he said things that should have got a bigger rise. This is one of his best responses. Look at what happens here.


FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, R-PA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This race and this campaign is not going to be about tearing everybody down. It's not going to be about negative ads. It's not going to be about anything other than painting a bold vision for our country, one that believed in the working class values that my grandfather taught to me. The --



FOREMAN: You were speaking a little while ago about the desire to hear more talk, like Rick Santorum has brought to the race here. You believe he's the guy that you would like to support here, but you're talking about social issues largely, right, values issues?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I am. I think values play a big part in an election. I mean, I go to church every Sunday, and every Wednesday, and a lot of my friends, who would like to see more morals come back to the United States.

FOREMAN: But do you think somebody running on a platform of moral issues in this economy can win? Or do you think that most people are going to say it's an economic vote this time?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think a lot of people will say he could win here in the South. I don't know about the North. But I know here in the South, we have very deep religious values. And I think he could win. I really liked him. I think he's young, too.

FOREMAN: Who thinks he can't win?

No? You don't think -- you think Rick Santorum can win? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I don't think he can win. I agree he's got great core values. He's probably got some good ideas, but he doesn't have the popularity, you know, whether he has the money, whether he has the support behind him.

FOREMAN: That makes a big difference. Yes, yes.

So, Anderson, that's what we've been hearing a lot of, as I said earlier, this question of whether or not somebody can win.

And as we go to our dial testing here -- Southern Methodist University, by the way, did all the technology tonight and they did a great job with it. You can see it time and again, there are messages that resonate with the voters here.

But then when you ask will that message and will that candidate win, what they're constantly looking for is the combination of a message that wins in their hearts and a candidate who can win at the polls.

That's clearly what people are looking for here and they're trying to sort it out. Newt Gingrich clearly made some ground tonight in convincing people that maybe he's that guy, although there are a lot of people who are still looking at Romney very closely.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, AC360: Tom, thanks very much. That, of course, is where our debate is going to be on Thursday night in Florida. It's going to be a fascinating debate at -- starting, of course, at 8:00 Eastern time. Let's take a look over at some of the numbers in Florida in terms of what the candidates -- obviously this is the state they're heading to tonight, if not tomorrow.

Economically, what are we looking at?

ERIN BURNETT, ANCHOR, ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT: This is interesting. In a sense, similar to South Carolina, unemployment a big issue as it is around the country, because the unemployment rate in Florida, it actually ties for the fourth worst unemployment rate in the United States.

And Anderson, part of the reason for that is not going to surprise you, obviously housing. When you have a housing problem, you have an employment problem. In Florida, this is the story economically.

Your average home in America is down 24 percent from the peak back in the summer of 2007. In Florida, the best location is down 46 percent. You have prices in central Florida, Orlando, down 60 percent; Tampa Bay, 55 percent; Miami --

COOPER: Sixty percent (inaudible).

BURNETT: -- 51 percent. So this is a big part of the story here. This is a state that's hurting. You've got a tie at number three in terms of underwater mortgages in this country. It's still pretty bad there.

COOPER: You're been polling CEOs today about who they liked better on the economy, President Obama or Republicans. What did you find?

BURNETT: You know, Anderson, we have a strike team. We have 22 members of it, entrepreneurs, big CEOs, like the CEOs of Ford, tech CEOs, all kinds of people from different walks of life to try to get a sense of what they want. And this is really interesting. All right. They all pick their number one Republican candidate for the economy as Mitt Romney.

Now, over Barack Obama, 14 of them would say Mitt Romney would be better for the economy. This is an economic question versus four for Barack Obama.

They think that Mitt Romney's push to lower taxes on corporations is attainable. They also think he's calm and consistent. But this is what's fascinating, given what we saw tonight. Look at this, Anderson.

When we polled them, 13 of them, almost the same number as said they would prefer Mitt Romney in the economy over Barack Obama also preferred Newt Gingrich to Barack Obama. Newt Gingrich's tax plan for individuals also has a lot of appeal for a lot of voters out there. Fifteen percent flat optional tax is something popular in the Republican Party, also popular with a lot of business people as well.

So when it comes to electability, yes, you look at business people. They say OK, Mitt Romney would be our choice in the Republican field, but would they take Newt Gingrich? And the answer seems to be yes.

COOPER: All right. Fascinating stuff, Erin, thank you very much. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney taking aim at each other coming out of South Carolina. How will Mitt Romney try to regain momentum? Can he? We'll look at that, up next. We'll be right back.


COOPER: And welcome back to this primary edition of AC 360. It's getting dangerously close to CNN AFTER DARK hours, although we continue with the AC 360 font at least. I'm here with Gloria Borger, David Gergen, also John Avalon who's joining us from Romney headquarters. Let's talk about where the race goes now in terms of Mitt Romney, Gloria.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think Mitt Romney has learned as one of his folks said, you know, he's got to start playing offense, not defense.

And I think what you're going to see, particularly given those numbers that Erin just showed about housing and the value of housing in Florida, they're going to start playing up Newt Gingrich as a lobbyist, Newt Gingrich as a lobbyist for Freddie Mac, although he told us he was a historian for Freddie Mac.

And they're going to start saying, you know what? He's really somebody who has worked in Washington, lived in Washington, governed in Washington. He's not an outsider. And by the way, he was kind of part of the elite when he was Speaker of the House.

And I think instead of just hearing this from surrogates, also about Newt Gingrich's lack of discipline and what they -- they call him unreliable, you're going to start hearing it from Mitt Romney himself. I think the --

COOPER: Which we haven't really (inaudible) before.

GERGEN: Yes, and I think the problem is, as I was saying earlier, it's this kind of asymmetrical warfare because Newt Gingrich is such a great attack politician, one-on-one, and Mitt Romney not so much.

COOPER: John Avalon, it was interesting to hear the speeches of both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich tonight, because they both tried to focus on President Obama, though Mitt Romney did begin to attack Newt Gingrich, though not by name. It's going to get much more personal, it would seem, in the coming days.

JOHN AVALON, CNN REPORTER: That's exactly right, Anderson. You know, traditionally Florida has been the tiebreaking primary in this January gauntlet, and it's set up to be that again, with three different candidates winning the three different states today.

What's interesting about Florida is that Tea Partyers, Hispanic voters are much more likely to be decisive than say evangelical voters. And there's some interesting fault lines.

Go back to the 2010 race, you had that vicious primary between Charlie Crist, who represented sort of the center right establishment wing of the Republican Party, and Marco Rubio. Rubio, of course, won that. And what's significant about that is that Marco Rubio's campaign manager, Jose Malaya (ph), is actually running the state of Florida for Newt Gingrich this time around.

In addition, Newt Gingrich just got an endorsement a while ago from a major Republican Hispanic group called Somos Republicans. That could be a significant factor, as well.

So with this tiebreaking role that Florida can play, a lot of the fault lines, some of them could be playing in Newt Gingrich's favor, even though Romney has that money advantage and also poll advantage at least going into tonight.

COOPER: And David, as you look back on tonight, what really -- what are you reflecting on?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Two things are striking me, Anderson. One is a conversation with Newt Gingrich way back weeks before Iowa. He said, you know, I'm going to have an onslaught of negative things that are going to come at me. And if I can survive it, if I can just survive it, I can turn this into a two-man race, and I can win a two-man race.

And lo and behold, that's what he's done. You know, he's emerged now. It's one thing Romney didn't want to do is have the evangelicals and all the conservatives start to coalesce around one candidate. They were playing divide and conquer.

They now have a situation where they're running against essentially one candidate, it's turned the race upside down.

The other thing that is striking about this is that in the age of the Internet, you know, this new technology, how much this race is turning to (inaudible) old technology, television. You know, that we'll have to test this out now, because we've always thought organization and money spell the difference in these races. Gingrich is doing something very different.

COOPER: And by television, you mean televised debates?

GERGEN: The debates. The debates are driving these -- it drove South Carolina.

COOPER: Have you seen any other election where debates drove it so much?

BORGER: No, I think they were important with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, you'll recall. But what was so interesting to me about the exit polls tonight, just shows you the fluidity of the race, where we had over half the people saying that they decided at the last minute.

And I think that's because they were watching these debates, and they will watch these debates in Florida and it will help them make up their mind.

COOPER: And in fact, these two debates coming up in Florida may be even more critical than they were in South Carolina because Mitt Romney now has really a stake in showing that he is not a waffler.

BORGER: Exactly.

GERGEN: I mean, you said, can you remember the last time that television really drove was in a national election? 1960, Kennedy- Eisenhower -- Kennedy-Nixon, sorry. Kennedy won that through television.

BORGER: That's right. That's right.

GERGEN: It's an important medium, but we haven't seen it like this before.

COOPER: Up next, John King is back with Mitt Romney's biggest worry going into Florida tonight. We'll have that ahead.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: Welcome back. We've got John King here. We were studying all these numbers, John, and we're learning a lot about what happened in South Carolina and what it means down the road.

JOHN KING, HOST, JOHN KING U.S.A.: That's right. We're trying to look at the South Carolina exit polls and the results and project forward, what does Newt Gingrich have to gain, what should he be focusing on, and mostly what does Mitt Romney have to worry about?

Here's a few things. That when Gingrich is winning so big, you know he's winning across. But look at this. Huge support among the Tea Party. There's a lot of Tea Party in Florida. Governor Romney needs to fix this number, you have Gingrich 45 to 25 among the Tea Party. He has to close that gap. That's one less in there.

Evangelical Christians, not as big as a factor, 64 percent in South Carolina, that will be a much smaller number in Florida. But again, especially up in the Panhandle, those voters matter, 44 percent for Gingrich, 22 percent for Romney. He would like to improve that number in Florida if he wants to be competitive.

But, Wolf, here's what I think are the biggest game changers tonight, reinforced not just by South Carolina results. You can say this a more conservative electorate, Gingrich won big, so discount the numbers.

But if you listen to those independent voters -- the undecided voters, excuse me -- with Tom Foreman, who has the right experience? Forty- nine percent of South Carolina voters said Newt Gingrich has the right experience.

Mitt Romney has been saying you want a governor, not a guy who's been in Congress. You want someone with business experience, not somebody who spent their life in Washington.

Well, Newt Gingrich has convinced at least South Carolina Republicans he has the right experience to be president by a commanding margin over Mitt Romney. This is a challenge going on into Florida, especially if you listen to those undecided voters Tom was talking to, and how impressed they were with Speaker Gingrich.

And this has been Mitt Romney's greatest strength the entire race, who is the best candidate to go up against President Obama in the fall? A combination of the debates and the campaigning, that's the right experience.

I'm sorry, I put the wrong one up there -- can defeat Obama, let's come up here, 51 percent, a majority of South Carolina Republicans tonight said Newt Gingrich was the best candidate to beat Obama.

Again, you could say one state, conservative, he won big, except if you listen to those undecided voters that were with Tom, you watch them react to the speech, this is a big gap, a 14-point gap there.

These are the only two candidates. If you see Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul, these are the only two candidates. They had a large number of Republicans think, but this is the entire underpinning of the Romney campaign. You might not like me, you might not love me, you might not get passionate about me, but I can beat Barack Obama.

It's this psychology of the race that he -- that Newt Gingrich can beat Barack Obama and that Newt Gingrich has the right experience, if that carries over into Florida, Mitt Romney is in trouble.

BLITZER: And those electability questions, Mitt Romney did so much better in Iowa, in New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich did really well in South Carolina. And that's going to be key presumably in Florida in 10 days.

KING: He has to change that and change it fast.

BLITZER: Yes. Up ahead, what could be Republican turnout, it was relatively high tonight, mean for President Obama? We'll assess when we come back.


COOPER: Our esteemed contributors are basically the last folks standing here. You guys are hardcore.

Alex Castellanos, what are you thinking about right now?

REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST ALEX CASTELLANOS: I've learned two things today. One is open marriage is not just for Democrats anymore.


CASTELLANOS: And two, weakness will not be forgiven by Republicans this year. Tim Pawlenty displayed weakness earlier in a debate with Mitt Romney, and Republicans dispatched him. Mitt Romney displayed weakness in a debate against Newt Gingrich, he stumbled in South Carolina. The stronger guy will win Florida.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY FOR U.S. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Two things, one turnout -- surge and interest in the South Carolina primary.

And that tells me going forward that if this is a really mano a mano battle, you could have this happen in a lot more states. (Inaudible) up almost 33 percent in South Carolina compared to last time. It broke the record, which was in the 2000 Bush race.

The other issue for Newt Gingrich is can he cut the gap with Barack Obama? Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been running dead even in most of the polls, according to Real Clear Politics (ph) average. Newt is down by 11 points. He's got to close that gap.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Mitt Romney thought he was going three for three by the end of this weekend. Now he lost two states in one week. He not only has to sell himself to conservative Republicans, he has to figure out a way to take down somebody who might be gaining traction with the Republican base, Newt Gingrich.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, the Republican Party is a party that always advocates less government and family values and the front-runner is now somebody been married three times and was a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. Anything can happen in this world.

When they say anybody can grow up to be president, they're right. (LAUGHTER)

COOPER: -- we're going to hear a lot more about that this week.

CARVILLE: I think -- I think the big thing they're going to call on Gingrich to release his contract with Freddie Mac, and that Freddie Mac said that's fine with them. And I that everybody thinks in that contract there were specific things that he was supposed to do and I think you're going to hear about that again, again and again.

COOPER: Donna, you've run campaigns. What is the Romney campaign going through tonight at this hour?

BRAZILE: Look, there's no question, they're looking at the delegates and they know that whether this race ends in Florida, or ends on Super Tuesday, they have the organization, they have the money, they can beat Newt Gingrich.

Erick Erickson, (Inaudible) standing by in Columbia, South Carolina, I'm not sure how many beers they've had at this point, Eric, what are you looking at moving forward? Where does this race go?

ERICK ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM: I want to see Ron Paul (inaudible), and I'm actually surprised he came in fourth place here. He had a strong showing of grassroots in South Carolina. By the way, public service message to the troopers of Columbia -- Ari Fleischer is actually in Atlanta. I'm (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, they're looking for you, baby. They're looking for you, Ari.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can tell you're in a bar. That's what you're looking at going forward. That's (inaudible).

COOPER: Yes, how nasty on the Republican side do you think this race going to get?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, this is -- this is winner-take-all in Florida. This is -- nobody is going to leave any arrows in the quiver here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And if this is about Newt, you release your dirt, Romney, you release your dirt. Republicans are off track and I hope it's not off track for long.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Debt, spending, taxes. That's where this race has got to get back to for Republicans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ari was right about the turnout. We had a clash, I didn't think, to Iowa -- or the New Hampshire turnout was that impressive, but at 33 percent increase over 2000 is impressive.

COOPER: I want to thank all our reporters, our analysts, our contributors. Be sure to tune in to CNN's next Republican debate from Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday night at 8:00 pm Eastern. Our coverage of "America's Choice 2012" continues right now.