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First South Carolina Exit Poll Data

Aired January 21, 2012 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to this special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM. The polls close in South Carolina less than one hour from now.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. We're counting down to the first results, and maybe - maybe - a winner in this critical contest. We have the most crews in the most locations, including our correspondents over at the candidates' headquarters. Anderson Cooper is here along with "The Best Political Team." Our analysts are in the studio and in the field.

But, right now we have Breaking News. We have the first exit poll information from South Carolina.

Let's go straight to CNN's John King, he's working these numbers for us. Tell our viewers what we're learning.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Most important thing, Wolf, South Carolina following Iowa and New Hampshire, this is a much more conservative state, much more influence of evangelical voters.

Among those voting in the South Carolina primary, 64 percent describe themselves as Born Again or Evangelical Christians, 36 percent no. That 64 percent is significant. That's up a bit from four years ago. It was about 60 percent then. So strong influence tonight from Evangelical Christians.

We didn't have a Tea Party four years ago, but remember in 2010 when the Tea Party sprung up, it was important hugely important in the governors' elections, other elections across South Carolina. Again, more evidence of the conservative electorate today 66 percent, two- thirds of those voting in today's South Carolina Presidential Primary say they support the Tea Party, 25 percent neutral on that question, only eight percent of voters say oppose the Tea Party.

So, again, Evangelicals, Tea Party, we have a conservative electorate tonight in South Carolina.

Let's bring this over just to help you see it more. Only two percent of those voting today describe themselves as very liberal, 37 percent say they are very conservative, 32 percent say they are somewhat conservative. So you get the flavor. We have a very much more conservative than Iowa and New Hampshire in there today.

And just by gender who voted today, men are the majority of the electorate in South Carolina today, Wolf, 53 percent men, 47 percent women.

Let's bring it over here for a second just to show as the results come in, here's what we're going to look for. We're going to watch this area right down in here, it's very important. We're also going to watch this area right up here across the top of the state, very important. Why?

Let's go back in time to show you why they matter. This is the 2008 South Carolina Primary. John McCain down here along the coast, the low country especially places like this, Horry County, right up here where Myrtle Beach is, about five percent of the state's population, more moderate to conservative Republicans here. Very important to John McCain four years ago.

This was Mike Huckabee up here. Greenville, Spartanburg, population centers, Wolf, with a lot of Evangelical and Tea Party voters critical tonight.

BLITZER: The state a little bit more diverse than a lot of people really know. We're going to be discussing this at length.

Let's go over to Anderson Cooper to help us appreciate some of these early numbers we're getting announced.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And we're here with all our analysts, our Republican strategists, Democratic strategists.

James Carville, what are you expecting tonight?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, I expect uncertain, that's generally what it is and if one is to believe the final polls taken last night, Speaker Gingrich is in good shape. We were in the Green Room talking before this and I mean this has been a roller coaster ride unlike any other and I suspect it is going to provide us -

COOPER: You're thrilled by that fact.

CARVILLE: Oh, if - if the last polls are correct, if last night's polls are correct, yes, I think, yes, I would be understandably thrilled by that. Because I think Donna would probably be happy. It would be a happy side to take with it (ph).

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely, we're ready to, you know, take out some of the balloons that we've been storing away.

But, look, Anderson, this was a very interesting week in politics. Jon Huntsman dropped out, threw his support to Romney. Perry dropped out, threw his support to Newt Gingrich. Rick Santorum woke up one morning and found out that he won the contest in Iowa.

And, look, where are we today? We just don't know until we see the results tonight but we know one thing, the Republicans are not ready to settle on one person yet.

COOPER: And a lot of people are making up their minds at the last minute.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's right. That's one of the things we've seen in the exit polls, much more than four years ago, South Carolina voters voted on the basis of what they saw in the last week.

What did they see in the last week, Newt Gingrich surging. Last night, I predicted that Newt would win by five points and I still think Newt is going to win. The question is, is that surge going to continue, did it stop, is it going to go more than five? We'll have to wait and see what the finals are, but you get the feeling that Newt had a great week.

COOPER: And particularly because of those two debates, and debates playing such a critical role.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This - you know, we've always said for the past year this election is not about hope and changes. It's about strength and certainty. People feel the country is in decline. They want a strong leader to do something about that.

Mitt Romney was attacked this week. Kind of weakened response, confused on several issues. Newt Gingrich was attacked this week, very strong. So we're going to see I think tonight is, who emerges as the alpha dog coming out of South Carolina.

Gingrich is harder to kill that Rasputin. He's been dead three times in this campaign and you just can't, you know, the guy keeps coming back.

CARVILLE: The difference is Rasputin probably get more votes in the general election than Newt would. And then you all see a bigger day (INAUDIBLE) it's going to be a bigger day in presidential politics than last Thursday. It's going to be more news and more different stories drumming (ph) up. I've never seen anything like it.

COOPER: And also, I mean, it's extraordinary - and David Gergen and Gloria joining in - when you think about how this week has completely changed, you know, the narrative at the beginning of the week was the inevitability of Mitt Romney winning, no one is talking about that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is - I mean I think this could be history here in the making. I mean we've never seen somebody win Iowa, somebody win New Hampshire, and then somebody different go on to win South Carolina. And then if Newt Gingrich turns out to be victorious, this evening, he's going to say nobody's ever won the nomination without winning South Carolina.

So, you know, we're really watching history here in the Republican Party, because if he is, if he does emerge as the winner it's going to be a very different race from anything we have ever seen.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Only a week ago we were talking about history in the making because Mitt Romney has looked like he was going to be the first person in history to win the first three contests. And now it looks like he may be - we may have the first time in history that nobody has won two out of the first three.

FLEISCHER: This is terrible for the coroner's business, because everybody said Newt was dead and it looks like he is coming back strong.

GERGEN: But the margins matter here a lot, how much, if there's a Gingrich victory, is it a small victory? Is it a big victory? Who comes in third? Who comes in fourth? There are a lot of sub- questions here that are extremely important.

COOPER: And a lot to go over, Wolf, we got a long night.

BLITZER: We certainly do. Two of the candidates especially we're watching those races very, very closely, the stakes enormous on this night for both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Let's go to their campaign headquarters right now. Candy Crowley is over at Mitt Romney headquarters. Jim Acosta is at Newt Gingrich headquarters.

Candy, first to you, "Believe In America" we see the big sign right behind you. They're getting ready for something tonight, either a celebration or maybe not so much.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, you know, if this was the night that we're going to start talking about inevitability, it may not be.

In coming days, I think if Mitt Romney loses tonight, prepare to hear these two words "long haul" because over the past few days as Mitt Romney's numbers have fallen and Newt Gingrich's numbers have risen, his staff and strategists and his strategist and those outside the campaign supporting him have begun to talk about the fact that they believe he is better prepared, better funded and better staffed for the long haul, for all those races that come after South Carolina.

You can also expect a little something different from Romney. He has in the past couple of days really begun to press Newt Gingrich about reports from the Ethics Committee about reports of that investigation into Speaker Newt Gingrich. Today, he sent - the Romney campaign sent Newt Gingrich a 15th anniversary cake to mark the day that the House reprimanded then Speaker Gingrich for ethics violations, so in addition to the long haul expect some hardball, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Getting nasty and nastier by the day.

Jim Acosta is over at Newt Gingrich headquarters. Set the scene for us over there, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm inside the room where Newt Gingrich hopes to deliver his victory speech later tonight and if he wins here in South Carolina, it will mark yet another trip back from the political dead for Newt Gingrich, after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he really seized an opening here in South Carolina, came back with a vengeance, and really, you know, really seized on a - on a venue that has paid dividends throughout this campaign for him and those are the debates.

When he turned those questions back on the moderators, back on the media, that really warmed the hearts of conservatives down here in South Carolina. Almost every voter I talked to have said it's those debates that has won this race or won this vote for Newt Gingrich.

And Wolf, I have to tell you, there's been all of this talk about how the Democratic Party only has eyes for Mitt, only seems to be talking about Mitt Romney. I could just tell you a few moments ago we saw the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz in this room so they're starting to pay attention to the fomer speaker.

BLITZER: What was she doing in that room, at Newt Gingrich headquarters? That's surprising.

ACOSTA: She's doing media interviews. She's talking to the press, talking about - I think Speaker Gingrich's record, you know, for the longest time they've really only been focusing on Mitt Romney. I thought it was notable to see her in the room here tonight.

BLITZER: Yes. Very interesting. All right. Jim, stand by.

Two other candidates are running of course, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, they're going for every vote they can get as well and they're likely to influence the outcome.

Dana Bash is over at Rick Santorum headquarters. Joe Johns is covering Ron Paul.

Dana, first to you. What's going on over there?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I want to tell you where I am. I'm in what will be in about an hour the war room for Rick Santorum. We are at the citadel in Charleston and it looks empty right now and the reason is because the real Rick Santorum headquarters is not too far from here in a town called Mt. Pleasant.

There, they are still - you know, polls are going to be opened for another 50 minutes or so, they're still working the phones trying to get every last potential Santorum voter to the polls.

But in a short while they're all going to be here. Now, we just have a few people, three people here, but they are getting ready. They're actually setting up what they call the war room. It's all electronic at this point and they're waiting to get calls from Santorum volunteers and staffers who are at precincts all over the state, a little more than 2,000 to text them and to e-mail them and to call them with the results.

Tension here is pretty high because as you can imagine, they thought that they were going to do pretty well in South Carolina, but as we've seen from the polls, Rick Santorum is now in third or sometimes fourth place, which is not a good sign, but he still says he's going to carry on to Florida no matter what.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Thanks very much, Dana, we'll get back to you.

Joe Johns is over in Ron Paul headquarters. They're getting ready for something over there as well, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's for sure, Wolf. Unconventional candidate, unconventional campaign party site. This is a saloon. It's called Jillian's, it's in downtown Columbia.

As you can see a lot of people here, many young people who fit the demographic of Ron Paul, the people who are his closest and most ardent followers, and it's a bar. It's also the place where he's going to end up on stage, hopefully, later this evening. Ron Paul had a huge rally here last night, hundreds of people so if that many people show up tonight, it should be quite an event.

Ron Paul has been very realistic about the State of South Carolina. He's been campaigning lightly here, even went up to Washington, D.C., to do a vote in the House of Representatives earlier this week. He is pushing hard, but looking sort of past Florida, Wolf, on to the caucus states in Nevada and Minnesota, has already made television ad buys there, and perhaps isn't going to spend a lot of money on TV ads in Florida.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: We'll be hearing all the speeches tonight as they unfold. Joe, we'll get back to you.

We're certainly counting down to the top of the hour, and the first results from South Carolina, the polls will close at the top of the hour. Will Newt Gingrich pull off his first primary win? Stay right here. You will find out.


COOPER: We get the first results from the South Carolina primary at the top of the hour, about 45 minutes away. We could project a winner then or it could be a long night. You wouldn't want to miss a moment of it, that's 45 minutes from now.

Right now, let's go inside some of the polling places for the final minutes of voting in South Carolina. Shannon Travis is in Greenville, South Carolina. Don Lemon is in Lexington.

Shannon, what are you seeing?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Yes. Hey there, Anderson. We're here at the Eastland Church in Greenville, in the County of Greenville. And about 800 voters have showed up here election officials tell me so far. That's less than half of the estimated 1,800 in this precinct, but although this is one of the smaller polling places, this county is huge.

We've been mentioning that Greenville County is the most populist and the most Republican, so this is where the candidates are fighting it out. This is where they want to win and this will actually be a bellwether for the results tonight. Whoever does well here, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or whatever could forecast a really good night for them because of the number of conservative voters in this county - Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Shannon, thanks very much.

Don Lemon is in Lexington, South Carolina. Don, what are you seeing there?

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're seeing a lot of rain earlier. It certainly didn't cooperate today and that really hindered the turnout here, low turnout across the state. We had been hearing from people at the polling place.

But the folks who did show, we want to talk about the process we heard so much about what happened in Iowa. What happens is they divide the alphabet in half here. You go here, you give one of these young ladies your driver's license and identification, they check your name, you sign it here and they give you one of these blue cards. You take the blue card, you hand it to this one of these gentlemen over here.

They walk you over and what they do is they take this thing, Anderson, that's called a PEB, which a Personal Electronic Ballot, they stick it in this machine. This records your vote, that records your vote, that way there is at least a double recording of your vote, they double check it and what you do when you come here just like any other polling place in the country, you grab one of these stickers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I appreciate you voting.

LEMON: It says "I Voted" stick it right here on your lapel and they tell you "Appreciate Your Vote" and you're on your way. But, again, the weather didn't cooperate this morning. We got here about 7:00 this morning. There were people lined up, middle of the day it started raining and that really killed things here and just about 45 minutes as you said, some people are starting to show up now that the rain has gone away, but they've only got a few more minutes, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Don, thanks very much.

We'll continue to check and see how turnout is across the state and if the weather really has had a big impact and who that might help and/or hurt. We got about 40 minutes until the polls close, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect the weather did reduce it a bit. Let's see how much it wound up doing.

Let's go back to John King over here at the exit polling center. John, you're looking at these numbers and we're getting more information by the minute. What else is coming in?

KING: The numbers are fascinating. We told you a moment ago who voted today, 64 percent described themselves as Evangelicals, two- thirds said they support the Tea Party. So a very conservative electorate in South Carolina. What's on their mind as they vote? What is the most important candidate quality? Look at this right here. Forty-five percent, not quite half, but 45 percent of the voters today can defeat President Obama. South Carolina Republicans are looking for a strong general election candidate to beat the president. That's one thing on their mind today.

They also came, this - you get their mood, you want to know the mood. Are you worried about the economy? Look at this, giant number here, 78 percent very worried, 19 percent somewhat worried. Look at that, just about everybody who voted today more than 90 percent are very, very worried, 98 percent very, very worried about the economy.

So no surprise there then if they walk into the polling booth still worried about the economy, what is the most important issue? Not abortion. A lot of evangelical voters only eight percent say it's abortion. Twenty-three percent, the big Tea Party State, only 23 percent say it's the deficit, because, Wolf, they are worried four percent says illegal immigration. Six and ten South Carolina Republicans say they are worried first and foremost overwhelmingly about the state of what they view as a very weak and struggling U.S. economy.

BLITZER: So it's still "the economy stupid" - I'm not calling you stupid, but it's still the economy stupid.

KING: Call me what you will. On these voters minds right here, remember, 9.9 percent unemployment in the State of South Carolina. We know the economy will be the number one issue nationally. Not a surprise there at all.

This is a bit of a surprise because of the power of the Tea Party there. This tells you 9.9 percent unemployment, they are struggling, that's what they want.

BLITZER: All right. Let's go back - Anderson is with Erin Burnett.

It's a fascinating state, South Carolina, guys, and what we've seen have been some unique examples of politics unfolding in this state.

COOPER: Yes. And we've seen some dirty politics just in the last couple of days with fake e-mails that have been sent around, it's been a fascinating battle in South Carolina, which is about to be resolved within this hour. What are you checking on tonight?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So we're looking at - John interestingly talking about the economy being the number one issue and you're driving across the state today you see it. This is a state that has still a lot of economic issues.

Almost everyone worried about the economy. Well, here's why. Just take a look at unemployment. We've broken this down by the four key regions in this battleground state, and as you can see, all four of them have unemployment rates that are above the national average, the national average 8.5 percent, as you can see the area that comes closest is the low country, where you have Hilton Head, you have Charleston and also a right to work state.

You've got a new Boeing plant there, Anderson. 787 Dreamliner is going to be coming off the assembly line starting in March. So you're starting to see a little bit of improvement there.

I want to zone in here on the midlands, this is where Columbia is the capital and what you can see here is where the capital is unemployment rate right in line with the national average. You've got government jobs. You have University of South Carolina education jobs.

The other side of the state, where I spent some time yesterday with Newt Gingrich, Orangeburg, South Carolina, 15.3 percent.

COOPER: All right. There is - there is some positive economic news in the state.

BURNETT: Yes. There is some positive economic news and let me bring that up, because this is - this might surprise people, housing prices. Now ground zero, biggest asset for - for almost every American is their home and the ground zero for the economy. And let's show you what we see in South Carolina.

So, OK Anderson. This doesn't look so great, right? Charleston area, where you've got the retirees, second homes, Hilton Head, a lot of investment properties, down 14 percent from the peak in housing prices. Ten percent in the center of the state, two percent in the Piedmont, unchanged up at Myrtle Beach and the P.D. (ph), OK?

But, compare it to what's happened nationally, 24 percent drop in housing crisis in the United States since the peak. So no matter where you go in South Carolina, it's better than that, and that's a little bit of a sign of hope for the state.

COOPER: All right. That's some good news there.

All right, Erin we'll continue to check in with you. Let's go back to our analysts over here.

How much are you watching turnout, and who will - if there is low turnout because of the weather, or lower turnout, who might that help?


It would be - it would be indicative that that matching - the 2008 numbers in Iowa and in New Hampshire in the Republican (INAUDIBLE) in half. They have to - they're supposed to be gassed up. They have to exceed those numbers.

I guess in - if you would take conventional wisdom, it would hurt Romney because his reporters - his supporters are believed to be less passionate than the supporter of the other people, but I would defer to my Republican colleagues about that.

CASTELLANOS: And also you're seeing, I think, more men than women, which is not often the case. Gingrich is stronger with men. Romney's been stronger with women. BRAZILE: But in South Carolina, men have clearly ruled in that particular state, but in 2000, 573,000 Republicans participated in their primary. In 2008 I believe it was about 450,000. So turnout is a factor.

Now, weather hinders elderly people from voting, less enthusiastic people from voting, and of course more passionate people tend to turn out if the weather is bad. So I think tonight you'll see a mix of perhaps the Ron Paul factor, you know, because they're the most passionate, but also the most organized campaign can typically turn out their voters as well.

FLEISCHER: Here's the trend you want to be on the lookout for. The Democrats had record breaking turnout in 2008 across all demographics and led to an overwhelming win. Democrat turnout, everybody says not going to repeat the magic that was in the bottle in 2008.

Republican turnout - and James and I differ about this, but Republican turnout was a record in 2008, got broken in 2012 in Iowa. Record in 2008 in New Hampshire, got broken in 2012 in New Hampshire.

Donna's right, 455,000 Republicans voted in 2008. Let's see if Republicans get a record tonight. That means three record-breaking night for Republicans. Do they get enough of a bump and there's enough of a decline in the Democrats that you get across?

CASTELLANOS: I hate to - I hate to agree with my friend James Carville instead of my better friend, Ari, but the Iowa turnout that was so big for Republicans, those were Ron Paul voters going in there. They weren't real Republicans and they're not reliable votes for us in the fall.

There is a little bit of dampening enthusiasm for our field, and that's something we have to confront.

CARVILLE: But Ari, if you would agree, if the Republicans match 2008 enthusiasm, that's not too good.


FLEISCHER: The line you got to look for is the Democrat decline, which everybody says is underway, a slight Republican -


FLEISCHER: -- lines cross.

CARVILLE: For now, Ari, it is generally referred to as the Democratic Party, but if you want to refer to it as the Democrat Party, that's your business -

FLEISCHER: I'm trying to save time.

CARVILLE: -- I would make the general point -

CASTELLANOS: I would say - I would say this, though, that the Democratic enthusiasm that we saw when Barack Obama was - electing the first black president of the United States is going to be hard to repeat. You're not - I think Ari's right. You're not going to get that. Losing your virginity the second time is just never as exciting.

CARVILLE: I agree, but he's got an 8.5 point margin here. I agree we're not going to - but we have some tolerance -


BRAZILE: But the - but the one thing Democrats will have going for them is this, that this Republican field, they have been so rabid, so appealing to the Tea Party base, that they're going to lose the middle. The middle will search for an alternative. That alternative will be Obama. He will repeat the same kind of turnout with those voters that came out in - in large numbers.

My concern is those first-time voters who showed up at the polls in 2008. Those are the voters that tend to be most unreliable when you try to get them out again.

COOPER: Right. We've got to take a quick break.

We are closing in on the final moments of voting in South Carolina. Stay with us through the top of the hour. We will bring you the - the first results, possibly even reveal a winner.

We'll see if we're able to do that at the top of the hour.

Also next, see for yourself some of the tough campaign ads that could make all the difference in the outcome tonight and certainly in Florida, where they go next. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

This certainly could be a momentous night for Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney. We're going to get the first results in the hotly contested South Carolina Primary. That's coming up right at the top of the hour. Stay with us to see if we have a winner or a nail-biter. Stand by for that.

But, right now, CNN ballot cameras are at key polling places along with our political producers and reporters. We're going to bring you some of the first vote counting and the results live before anyone else.

Let's go to our political reporter Rachel Streitfeld. She's joining us in Charleston. What are you seeing over there, Rachel?

RACHEL STREITFELD, POLITICAL PRODUCER: Well, everybody is preparing right now for an influx of people. I'm at the Board of Elections right now, and in just about an hour we're going to start seeing people streaming in. A hundred and three people from precincts, polling stations all over this county are going to come in and they're going to hand over their vote totals, and that's all going to be tallied.

So we're going to see two things from them. They're going to have this piece of paper. They'll have everybody's name on it and how many votes they got. This is just a sample.

But one interesting thing to note, Rick Perry will still be on there, Jon Huntsman - everybody whose name was originally on the ballot will still be on this ballot.

One other thing if information is going to be this computer cartridge that everybody will turn in. That will be put in here, uploaded into this computer, and those tallies will then be posted. We're going to bring those tallies to you live, so as soon as this Board of Elections knows who is leading in this county, we're going to know, Wolf.

One other thing to point out, these absentee ballots here. These can be turned in right up until 7:00 Eastern Time. So people have like about 31 minutes. They can drive those ballots down here and get them in. That gets put through this machine here, and there's a printout that will then be integrated back into the voter total that we'll see.

Two other things to remember, John McCain did very well here. He won this district handily in 2008. But Mitt Romney also had a good showing, so we're looking to see if that happens again this time.

One other thing, I know there's been bad weather throughout the state. Charleston has been lovely - Wolf.

BLITZER: I guess that's good news for the folks in Charleston. Rachel, we'll stand by.

A lot of technology. John, I hope there are no glitches. I get a little nervous when I hear all about that technology. But you're getting more exit polling numbers coming in. What else have we learned?

KING: Well, we told you earlier, a very conservative electorate, the economy is on their mind, they want to beat President Obama. When did they decide? That's often a big impact when you get into an election?

When did South Carolina voters decide and what help make their decision? Let's look, when did they decide, 37 percent said they decided in the last few days, 16 percent decided as they walked through the polling place today.

If you add that up, that's 53 percent so a majority of those voting today in South Carolina decided within the last few days, and what influenced their decision? Well, we asked them, did the debates matter? Were the debates a big factor in your vote?

Remember a big debate Monday and a big debate here on CNN on Thursday, 88 percent, nearly nine in ten South Carolina Republicans voting today, Wolf, said these debates were a big factor in their decision.

Now the conventional wisdom in South Carolina, the energy when I was there was that Newt Gingrich used those debates to gin up energy and excitement. We'll watch and see if that plays out, but 88 percent, nearly nine out of 10 voters today saying, you bet, the debates were a big factor.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of the pundits said Newt Gingrich did really well in those debates. He came back from the dead maybe in part because of those debates. Anderson, let's go back to you.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Wolf, as John has said, a lot of people making up their minds just in the last few days. We have seen this battle. It has been just as volatile, really the last few months as it has been the last few days.

Take a look in October. Mitt Romney was edging out Herman Cain. Remember him? Newt Gingrich jumped way ahead of the pack around the end of the year. Romney surged back into the lead this month, and then lost his advantage in the last few days running neck in neck with Gingrich.

The final poll out today shows Gingrich with a double-digit lead. Let's go over to Erick Erickson and Roland Martin who have the liberty tab room in Columbia in South Carolina.

Erick, I've been reading your tweets tonight. You think the rise in Gingrich has a lot to do with Gingrich, but also there's another factor here. What do you think it is?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think there's a resistance from base voters in South Carolina and elsewhere. We know this electorate is very heavily conservative.

They really feel like this should be a nomination fight not a coronation and they're pushing back on a lot of the Washington Republican crowd who have been telling them you have to take Mitt Romney.

They're not willing to take Mitt Romney. He got less votes in 2012 in Iowa than he got in 2008 and it looks like I would think based on the ground and the movement here and so many men turning out today, he's probably going to lose South Carolina.

COOPER: Roland, you agree with that?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: To some extent, but here's what I'm looking for. Newt Gingrich wins, I want to see how fast Erick's wife texts him to tell him he's sleeping on the couch. She will not be happy if he wins. That's what I'm looking for.

ERICKSON: Including my wife.

COOPER: Erick, you're saying he has a wife problem?

ERICKSON: He has a problem with female voters and if Rick Santorum were to drop out, a lot of those women voters I think would go to Mitt Romney, that's my guess.

He has to figure out how to neutralize that issue because you know, men may be turning out heavily in South Carolina today according to the exits we've seen so far, but overall women typically turn out more than men.

And that's going to be a problem for him throughout the primaries and if he's the nominee of the general election.

MARTIN: Don't think that this is somehow going to be the trend for the rest of those states. Again, you look at 2008, women were the majority in nearly every single primary and don't think they are going to forget that answer, when he called his wife a liar Thursday night to the answer question from John King.

COOPER: We'll check in with you guys throughout the night. Wolf, it will be interesting to see how he does among women in South Carolina.

BLITZER: It looks like more men are voting than women based on these early exit poll numbers, but we'll find out soon enough. We can have a whole new Republican race for the White House before the night is out.

The polls close in South Carolina right at the top of the hour. Stand by for the first results. We're going to show you how some very, very nasty ads could make a difference in this contest, and the next big face-off that's coming up in Florida. You're watching a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: A little bit under 23 minutes until polls close in South Carolina. We may be able to predict a winner at that point or it may be a few more hours. We're just going to have to wait and see until those polls close. Let's look at some of the political ads that have been flooding the air waves.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, flooding is a good word. I was talking to Senator Lindsay Graham, the senior senator from the state the other day. He said to me, Erin, I want to see a car ad again. I mean, it takes a lot to say that.

All right, so I've got all of the candidates here. Just a sampling of the ad, almost $6 million, 19,000 television ads have been shown in the state over the past couple of weeks.

Mitt Romney and his "Super PAC," a good example of some of the negativity. Here is an ad clip played about Newt Gingrich.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Newt attacks because he has more baggage than the airlines. Newt was fined $300,000 for ethics violations, took $1.6 million from Freddie Mac and co-sponsored a bill with Nancy Pelosi.


BURNETT: And because we want to be equal, even when we're being nasty, let's play one that Newt Gingrich and his "Super PAC" played about Mitt Romney, here he is saying he's not electable.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As governor of Massachusetts, he passed Romney care, the model for Obama care. Mitt Romney, not conservative, not electable.


BURNETT: And later on, we're going to break down who spent what, how much and find out whether all of this television ad money really mattered especially when it came to the debates, 19,000 ads, Anderson.

COOPER: It's extraordinary and of course, now the ad war moves to Florida where Governor Romney has had the advantage for a long time, he's been able to buy ads there. Alex, you know ads, you do ads as a Republican, a few. What do you make of the ads and the importance of them in South Carolina?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's just Republicans who are trying to contribute to the Obama recovery and get the economy going. It's how, you know, these are the six-shooters at the gunfight on Main Streets now.

This is how you communicate. You get a chance to jump in everyone's living room and talk to them. The internet is incredibly important now. It's a community building vehicle for you, which is still the way you get in someone's living room and talk to them is with a TV ad.

COOPER: What about the "Super PAC" ads, have they been successful, in getting out the message?

CASTELLANOS: Incredibly, they've changed the game now. Politics in South Carolina we've just seen is like NFL football. There's an offense for every team and a defensive team for every team.

And they have different players and coaches, but they all want the same thing. But now we've split the game in two like that. The "Super PACs" do the negative work.

COOPER: And now already who is running ads in Florida?

CASTELLANOS: Romney has been up a while and I'm not sure about Gingrich yet, but the question is Adelson, I think put about $5 million into Gingrich's campaign for "Super PAC ads," the billionaire out of Las Vegas backing Gingrich.

If let's say Newt Gingrich wins tonight and if he wins picks up, continues momentum, will more money pour into the Gingrich "Super PAC" and make Florida an interesting state?

COOPER: Right, the final votes right now are being tallied again about now, about 20 minutes left to go until polls close. There is a chance we may be able to project a winner at the top of the hour. Stay tuned to find out. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to this special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM. Take a look at this, only 16 minutes or so until the top of the hour. We might, repeat might be able to project a winner, maybe not. We're still going through all the numbers for the exit polls, the official numbers will start coming in at 7:00 p.m. Eastern at the top of the hour, once all the polls in the state of South Carolina close.

If this does prove to be a good night for Newt Gingrich, there may be only one person happier than he is, maybe that could be the president of the United States, because they've been really, really worried about Mitt Romney, if you believe what the Democrats have been saying.

Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is standing by. Jessica, you're over at the White House. If this does turn out to be a good night for Newt Gingrich as opposed to Mitt Romney, what are folks at the White House saying about that?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it ultimately -- look, they want to be tight-lipped and careful, Wolf, but bottom line my sources tell me that an elongated primary, which is what Gingrich victory would mean, is ultimately good for the president for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it means that the Republicans will continue battling each other for a longer time, and that means they're spending more resources attacking themselves, not attacking the president.

But it also means that they're bloodying whoever the eventual nominee is. There is a lot of video that the president's team can use in ads down the line that can be pretty useful.

Newt Gingrich this week has picked up some attack lines that the president's own team had used against Mitt Romney, who the president's team has believed will be the eventual nominee.

Essentially accusing him of let me quote, "Mitt Romney will do and say anything to become president, anything." That sounds a lot like what David Axelrod or David Plouffe have said about Mitt Romney that he lacks no core.

Also picking up on the Bain attack that the Obama team has made on Mitt Romney so that's one way, if Newt Gingrich should be the eventual nominee, well, Mitt Romney has said he's an unreliable leader.

Can't you see that used in a team Obama advertisement down the line saying we don't have to tell you this, Republicans have said it about their own nominee. So there's that, and it also buys the president plenty more time for him to go out and sort of "be above the fray" selling his own agenda, Wolf.

BLITZER: Where is the president tonight, Jessica?

YELLIN: He is here at the White House and as you may know the White House likes to say that he doesn't focus on election terms. He has other business to do, but I'm sure he gets briefed, Wolf. BLITZER: I'm sure he is. All right, Jessica, thanks very much. Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Gloria, you've been talking to establishment Republicans in Congress. What are you hearing about concerns about Newt Gingrich?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're worried. I spoke with one today who was worried that if Newt Gingrich is at the top of the ticket they lose the House of Representatives, period. They believe --


BORGER: Because they believe that he's so unreliable to use a Mitt Romney word that something could happen in a general election that would really hurt them, down ticket. And they're afraid of it, and they're not organizing yet against him, but you're beginning to hear this.

COOPER: What people in South Carolina are saying about him is he has fire in the belly and you saw that at the debates and they feel he can take on, what are the folks in Washington thinking they don't get?


BORGER: Well --

GERGEN: Listen, I think the people there in South Carolina are saying essentially, we like what we're seeing right now. People -- and they've just had two weeks of exposure, but people in Washington have had years of exposure.

And they've seen this instable quality, but I would ask Jessica to go back to her -- I wonder if there's not spreading the apprehension amongst some republicans and enjoy a greater satisfaction amongst some Democrats in the White House that two weak candidates could be emerging out of South Carolina.

Gingrich, who has got this baggage, plus Romney, who may be bloodied and weakened so --

COOPER: Let's bring Jessica back in at the White House. Jessica, did you hear David's query?

YELLIN: That there is pleasure that there are two emerging nominees or that --

COOPER: Too weakened candidates.

YELLIN: Yes, this is a dream scenario for the Obama team. Look, he's heading into an election year where the economy is down, where his own numbers are down and he's going to fight an uphill battle to win.

The one gift he's being handed is an incredibly weak Republican field in their view, and that's what they're getting n their view, and not only that they're beating each other up. The thing that Gingrich has going for him is he energizes the base potentially and he has a much more acceptable view on immigration that could turn out more Latinos in a general election than Romney.

So that's slightly concerning to them if he were to become the general election nominee. The bottom line is they're beating each other up, doing the Democrats' work for them. This is great news for them.

BORGER: But Jess, don't you think at a certain point and the White House won't say this obviously there will be a question about whether Republican enthusiasm for beating Barack Obama will trump anything, even in terms of a bloody Republican primary?

But that in the end, they just want to win so badly that they will vote for whoever becomes the nominee because they want to get Obama out of the White House?

YELLIN: There is Republican enthusiasm for that, but we all know that the vote ultimately comes down to the independents and the swing voters and whoever gets into this White House has to win that group. And that's --

COOPER: We got to take a break. We could be minutes away from projecting a winner in the heated South Carolina primary. Stand by for an update at the top of the hour. Quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. The polls closed in South Carolina only a few moments from now. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center.

The Republican race is down to only four candidates at a very intense showdown tonight between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. It could be, could be a nail biter.

CNN ballot cameras are strategically positioned across South Carolina to show you the voting and the results before any other network. We have the most crews in the most locations.

Our correspondents are out in force including Candy Crowley and Jim Acosta. Let's go over to Candy. She's over at Mitt Romney headquarters right now -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I've just been talking with some folks inside the Romney camp. Let's say when it comes to expectations, lower them.

I was reminded that Mitt Romney four years ago came in with 15 percent here in South Carolina and so, quote, "we are not going to be surprised if we come in second." And then a immediate pivot to Florida where they insist they have a very strong organization.

They're looking forward to going down to Florida and they have, quote, big plans for next week. I'm told that there will be two targets here for Mitt Romney. You can probably guess, President Obama and Newt Gingrich.

I was also told that, quote, "a major speech will be given by Romney on Tuesday morning" as a kind of rebuttal to the "State of the Union" address, which by the president.

And Romney will give another speech Wednesday morning to react to the "State of the Union," and Romney will differentiate his economic policies from both Newt Gingrich and President Obama -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Candy, let's go to Jim Acosta. He's over at Newt Gingrich's headquarters. Expectations over there, Jim?

ACOSTA: Wolf, they are very confident here at the Gingrich headquarters. You can always tell that the candidate is confident when they're booking morning show appearances the following day.

Newt Gingrich is scheduled to appear on three morning shows including one on CNN on "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley tomorrow. I had a chance to catch up with the spokesman for Newt Gingrich earlier today who at that house up in Greenville.

Where we thought Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney might cross paths. I thought, is there going to be a barbecue eating contest at this restaurant? He said if there was going to be one. We would win that, too. So it was an air of confidence I would say inside the Gingrich campaign basically all day long -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll standby to see what happens over there. Jim Acosta, thanks very much. Anderson Cooper, of course, is with us throughout the night -- Anderson.

COOPER: It's going to be such a fascinating night. This race has changed completely from what it was a week ago. We're moments away from the top of the hour when the polls close in South Carolina.

That's where we're going to get our first glimpse of how this very important contest turned out since Rick Santorum won Iowa. Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. The Republican race could turn into a freefall is someone else wins in South Carolina.

John King is going to be mapping out the results on the magic wall and bring us the exit polling data. John, what are you looking at tonight?

KING: Anderson, this has never happened before in the Republican race. Somebody winning Iowa. Someone different winning New Hampshire. Someone different then winning South Carolina.

Our early exit poll data is fascinating. We'll be able to scrub it in just a few minutes once the polls close and tell you even more, but remember Mitt Romney had the support of the state's governor.

So one big question is, how was voters approve? Two thirds of the voters who went to the poll say approve of Nikki Haley. Let's see if she follows her endorsement. If they did, there's also Mitt Romney. How old was the electorate in South Carolina today? Pretty spread out throughout the electorate, the largest group, 50 to 64 and the senior citizens, 65. They make up about 30 percent. This is more important as you move through this year.

(Inaudible) and come right here now a very, very conservative electorate today, Anderson, 66 percent of the vote, 2/3 of those casting votes in the presidential primary today support the Tea Party and 64 percent describe themselves as Born-Again Evangelical Christians.

So how does this play out. We know it's a conservative electorate. Let's what this. If you have moderate conservatives in South Carolina, the more moderate conservative live here along the coast, Myrtle Beach and Charleston.

Up here, this is your bible belt up here. I just want to show you very quickly. Go back to 2008, John McCain down here, Mike Huckabee up here, that's what we're watching on the map -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, John, thanks. Also new for tonight, Erin Burnett's going to bring us battle ground South Carolina, a new way for us to show you how money is influencing the presidential race and a lot of money has been pouring into this race.

BURNETT: A lot of it has, Anderson and it's been on advertising phone calls. One guy had 11 robo calls on his answering machine when he got home. Television ads -- look at the wall here. You can see how much the candidates have spent.

Mitt Romney's campaign, more than $1 million in South Carolina. The candidate that spent the least at the campaign actually, Newt Gingrich, with $335,000.

Take a look at this, this is the real story, "Super PACs." When you add them in, look at these numbers, almost $7 million. Mitt Romney almost 2-1 over Newt Gingrich, all in, $2.7 million. The question is, will it be enough -- Anderson.

COOPER: It's amazing how much Mitt Romney has put into those ads. We're in for what could be a very long night. Our analysts break down the developments like no one else can.

Gloria Borger, David Gergen are working their sources along with the Best Political Team here in the election center. Democrats and Republicans, and our experts are in the field, at campaign headquarters and in Columbia, South Carolina -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're watching all of this very, very closely. Let me go up to the podium over here, because as you can see, we're only 11 seconds away from the top of the hour. We want to see what we can specifically report when all the polls in the state are closed. Stand by for this.