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Interview With Arizona Governor Jan Brewer; Republicans Debate in Florida; Interview With Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush

Aired January 26, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone, from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. I'm John King.

Tonight, our CNN debate is the final showdown before Tuesday's important Florida GOP presidential primary. Warming up, Newt Gingrich calls the Mitt Romney campaign dishonest and hypocritical, a sure sign he knows the former Massachusetts governor has opened a small lead here.

Plus, debate advice from the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. You won't want to miss his advice to Speaker Gingrich.

And we learned today, surprise, Hillary Clinton is not watching the Republican debates. But the secretary of state did share some thoughts on her political future.

You can see the energy and the excitement here on the University of North Florida campus just two hours now until our Republican presidential debate here, the last showdown between the four candidates before Florida votes on Tuesday. Polls show a close race between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. And with the former Massachusetts governor gaining ground in recent days, the former House speaker's team knows this could be his final chance to swing the Florida momentum.

Yes, there are some differences on tax policy and immigration policy and we expect fireworks there tonight. But more than anything else, the GOP race has turned more and more testy, on questions of trust, leadership, and character.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am angry. But I think -- I'm angry and I think every American should be angry. How can somebody run a campaign this dishonest and think he's going to have any credibility running for president?


KING: CNN's Jim Acosta is tracking the pre-debate rhetoric.

And, Jim, that tone from Speaker Gingrich aimed at Governor Romney a lot tougher than the more passive approach he took in Monday's debate. Explain why.


It has gotten personal. You only have to look at what Mitt Romney's campaign has been saying about Newt Gingrich all day long. They have been putting out e-mails calling Newt Gingrich Dr. Newt and Mr. Hyde with the hashtag unhinged, yes, using the word unhinged in talking about Newt Gingrich. There's an ad out from the Romney campaign that sounds a lot like those super PAC ads that the pro- Romney super PAC put out weeks ago.

That ad includes your interview with Nancy Pelosi talking about how she might have something on Newt Gingrich should he become the Republican nominee. And I asked R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for the Newt Gingrich campaign, earlier today, what's with this very personal tone? Why are you going after Mitt Romney and calling him dishonest?

Basically, John, it goes back to this issue of the Freddie Mac contracts and the fact that Newt Gingrich has really been on his heels all this week from the Romney campaign. Mitt Romney has essentially called Newt Gingrich a lobbyist for Freddie Mac.

And I got this from R.C. Hammond. He said: "How does a guy who owns Goldman stock, a company directly responsible for foreclosures in Florida, has Freddie Mac lobbyists as top advisers in his campaign, think he can fool the American people?"

John, the gloves are off. And, you know, the only thing that might be missing at tonight's debate might be that steel cage. That's the only thing that's keeping these guys from tearing each other apart.

KING: A steel cage.

Jim Acosta tracking the pre-debate rhetoric, sometimes, the candidates carry it over, sometimes they don't. We will watch, Jim. Thanks so much.

For his part, Governor Romney was more gentle today, but clearly had Speaker Gingrich in mind here.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you think that you really need someone who's been part of the culture of Washington for the last 35 years to go there again and continue in Washington, why, there are other people you can choose.


KING: Our chief political correspondent, the anchor of "STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY," is here with us.

Candy, let's frame tonight's stakes. And let's start with Governor Romney.

Your first point about what he needs to do, as you say, tighter, sharper answers. CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He just has not been on his game the last couple of debates.

And, unfortunately, Newt Gingrich -- unfortunately for Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich has been on his game. Especially -- he's uncomfortable with his wealth. A lot of people have pointed this out. When someone brings up your tax returns and how much you paid in taxes, you need to have an answer as to, you know, that you can use the next day, that shows up on TV the next day. He hasn't been able to do that, despite the fact he couldn't have been surprised those kinds of questions came up.

So he needs to have those shorter answers.

BLITZER: Point two, as you say, Romney needs to disqualify Newt. What do you mean?

CROWLEY: Well, somehow -- and we have seen it start. We saw it with Bob Dole, a Romney supporter, and we have seen it start in some conservative outlets and some conservative columnists, all saying, whoa, he's crazy. He can't be trusted. We don't know. He's mercurial, et cetera, et cetera.

Somehow, Mitt Romney has to find a way to take that message and have it come from him without alienating Newt Gingrich's supporters. It's a really tricky business. But he's got to -- he's got himself to carry that disqualifying message.

KING: Also, tricky, your final Romney point, you say don't let the speaker get under your skin.

CROWLEY: Right, because part of the problem here for Mitt Romney is, he's not an angry guy. He just is not.

And when you fake anger, it's worse than if you have actual anger. So he needs to not let Mitt -- sorry -- let Newt get to him and at the same time, push back passionately.

KING: Push back passionately for Mitt Romney. We will see how that works out.

Now let's move to Speaker Gingrich. Your number-one point, you say, don't take the bait. What bait?


Here, we all know that Newt Gingrich can debate. We all know that he is very good with the comeback. He can be slicing, he can be dicing. What he needs to do now, I think what he was trying to do in that earlier debate with NBC, was trying to be presidential.

People need to be able to look at the candidate and think, oh, yes, I can imagine that. So he can't take the bait when they're trying to get to him.

KING: And you say he needs to be populist and stress his continued anti-elitist. Why?

CROWLEY: Because that's where his strength is.

We see it on the campaign trail. We see it in the response of the crowds. That's his strength, and he needs to continue. Notice that in that bite that you played earlier, he doesn't say I. He says we. They think we're dumb.

He's just so inclusive to that particular audience.

KING: And don't overheat?

CROWLEY: Don't overheat, because then you play into the crazy.

KING: Right.

CROWLEY: You have to stay Newt without going kind of nuclear.

KING: Let's look. There are four candidates. Let's focus on the other two.

For Ron Paul tonight, the most important thing is?

CROWLEY: Show up. This is just -- look, this is a man who is going to have his crowd no matter what. These people will take him all the way through June. So he shows up, he talks the issues, he's fine. He's still got his...


KING: You say keep on keeping on, which means be consistent and stick to the issues that his base...


CROWLEY: Which he absolutely has in every debate, as you can testify, all 17 of them. He has had the same issues. He's kept the same base. His fund-raising is fine. He can go the distance if he wants to.

KING: And so Senator Santorum sometimes is the odd man out. Paul has his own little niche in the party. You say he needs a breakthrough.

CROWLEY: He totally needs to break through.

At some point, people have to look at Rick Santorum the way he looks at himself, which is the Newt without the baggage. So he needs a breakthrough moment somehow.

KING: And you say your last point at him is to get into the debate. Get into the debate in a big way, right, so that he seems to be part of the big conversation.

CROWLEY: He can't be, to use an old term, the potted plant. He's got to somehow get in that debate between Newt and Mitt. It's difficult, but he's got to be in there.

KING: Candy Crowley setting the stakes for us.

Candy, thanks for your help.

Very important, be Newt without the baggage, she says. We will see how that one plays out.

We're less than two hours away now from our big debate here at the University of North Florida, big debate, last debate before the primary. It will be hosted by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida, and the Hispanic Leadership Network. It will be moderated by our colleague Wolf Blitzer live in the building you see right behind us here on the University of North Florida campus in Jacksonville.

Don't go anywhere. That's tonight 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Rick Santorum is trashing Newt Gingrich's idea of building a big U.S. space station on the moon base by 2020. The former speaker detailed a number of ambitious goals for the space program during a speech near Florida's Kennedy Space Center, admitting they were -- quote -- "grandiose ideas."

Well, Santorum's description today not so kind.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The idea that anybody is going out and talking about brand-new very expensive schemes to spend more money at a time when we do not have our fiscal house in order in my opinion is playing crass politics, and not being realistic with the people of this country as to the nature and depth of the problem.



KING: Now, the former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush publicly neutral in this presidential race. We spoke a bit earlier about the close race here, and Governor Bush's debate expectations.


KING: Let's start with the two candidates at the top. For yourself and for the conservatives you talk to across the state, what is the number-one challenge, let's say, for Speaker Gingrich tonight?

JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: I think it's to not go over the top in his attacks, to maintain the great connectivity he has with voters talking about the future.

I think there's a point past which Republicans and independent voters get turned off by this fierce primary spilling over into personal attacks. And I just would hope that both Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich would stay away from that.

KING: Is there a different challenge for Governor Romney, or is it the same?

BUSH: Well, I think his challenge is also to show his heart. Here's a guy who's been incredibly successful. Everything he's touched in his life has turned out pretty darn good.

And he seems uncomfortable showing who he is. He's got a great record, and he should be proud of it. And he's been a successful man in every way. And I think people can relate to that if he expresses it in the right way. It's tough to do it in a debate where there's a lot of fur flying. But that's I think his challenge going forward is to connect with people directly in a human way.


KING: Still ahead: The Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, joins us live to discuss her tarmac confrontation with President Obama. Did Governor Brewer cross the line?

Plus, more from Jeb Bush, including a stern warning to Republicans about alienating Latino voters.


BUSH: I don't think a party can aspire to be the majority party if it's the old white guy party.



KING: We're live at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Look at the enthusiastic crowd of students behind me here, about one hour and 46 minutes away from our big Republican debate right here on this campus.

One man who will be watching this final showdown before Florida's Republican primary is the former Republican Governor Jeb Bush. You heard a bit of his expectations moments ago. Governor Bush speaks fluent Spanish. He warns his party it must solve its problem with Latino voters or risk -- risk national isolation for years to come.

More of my conversation with the governor.


KING: You wrote a very important essay in "The Washington Post." I want to read a bit from it because you sound a warning alarm for your party.

You write this: "For the Republican Party, the stakes could not be greater. Just eight years after the party's successful effort to woo Hispanic voters in 2004, this community, the fastest-growing group in the United States according to census data has drifted away. Although Democrats hold the edge, Republicans have an opportunity."

You mention an opportunity there, Governor, but as you listen to the rhetoric from whether it's Speaker Gingrich, Governor Romney or the other candidates in this campaign, is it the right outreach, is it the right touch, or, as many people would say, is it again off-putting to Latinos?

BUSH: I think there needs to be more done, both in the primary and the general election.

I mean, look, in 2000 and 2008, John McCain and George W. Bush both got the same percentage of white voters. One won in a landslide in 2000. The other lost by seven. That's the changing demographic nature of our state and of our country.

And so if you want to win in the swing states, you need to attract swing voters. And if you want to win in the country, you have to do that. And so I think there needs to be a concerted 24/7 effort, not just to do it when you come down to Miami. There ought to be an effort in North Carolina, efforts in New Mexico, Nevada.

The swing -- the growing populations in all of the swing states are Hispanic voters. And the tone of the campaign talking about border security, which is a significant issue, if you just focus on that alone and not talk about economic opportunity, over-regulation of small businesses, education reform to give people opportunities, a tip of the hat of the patriotic and aspirational nature of all the Hispanic communities to connect personally, if you don't do any of that, you're not saying welcome to our club, welcome to our team.

And we do that at our peril, I think.

KING: You say you do that at your peril. What's the future as a national party for Republicans? Your brother got 41 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. John McCain slipped to 31 percent. If that trend continues, sir, five, 10, 15 years from now, will the Republicans even be able to compete nationally if they don't repair this breach?

BUSH: Well, I mean, this is an oversimplification, but I don't think a party can aspire to be the majority party if it's the old white guy party.

So, clearly, there are new constituencies emerging in our country. They're making a difference in our communities, a positive difference. The tone of the message, the message itself needs to be focused on where the changing demographics of our country are. And so, absolutely, if we do nothing to try to reach out to voters that believe in our values, but feel turned off by the rhetoric, that is the dumbest thing in the world to do.

And my guess is that there's a growing awareness of this. I sense the candidates as they have campaigned in Florida have begun to understand that a little better.

KING: Governor, Saturday night, as the results were coming in, in South Carolina, and it was clear that Governor Romney was getting a thumping from Speaker Gingrich, I was reaching out to a number of sources asking what would happen when they came to Florida.

And some sources in the Romney campaign and some other sources who are not in the Romney campaign, but who are involved in the Republican Party and know you, they were suggesting that you were perhaps ready to endorse. And then came word directly from you, no, that was not going to happen.

I'm told since that there were active conversations back and forth between you and the campaign. But what I was told earlier today was that you pulled back because you were concerned that some of Governor Romney's language on the immigration issue was too off- putting to those Latino voters we were just talking about. Is that fair?


You know, I sent Governor Romney an e-mail. I talked to him on Thursday and I sent him an e-mail on Friday saying my decision was to stay out of the race. And it really related to, I think, the fact that I think we have well-qualified candidates.

And we haven't talked and Rick Santorum or Ron Paul. But certainly we have well-qualified candidates. And I just think that they can earn this and it will make them better contenders in the fall. After all, at the end of the day, this is not about winning a Republican primary.

KING: All right. Have you decided who you're going to vote for?

BUSH: I have already voted. I voted absentee. I'm one of the third or 40 percent of all the voters who have already made up their mind. And thank God it's a secret ballot, John.

KING: You don't care to share that with us today, I'm guessing.


BUSH: You have got that right.

KING: All right.

Governor, in this campaign, you have heard all the candidates saying, I'm the heir to Ronald Reagan. Speaker Gingrich says it. Then Governor Romney says, no, he's not. Rick Santorum campaigns saying, if there is a Reagan conservative in this race, it's me.

Does it sting you at all that you don't hear any of these Republican candidates saying, I want to be a president like George H.W. Bush or I want to be a president like George W. Bush?

BUSH: Well, they both carried Florida. They carried it in the primaries. They carried it in the general election. They have a pretty good connection with the state of Florida. And I think they were damn good presidents as well. But, no, it doesn't bother me a bit. I think what the challenge we face is to take Reagan principles and apply them to the 21st century. If we are going to be the party that wins, we have to be a party that is forward-leaning, that's focused on the future, not reminiscing about the past.

Ronald Reagan, if he was a candidate today, wouldn't be dealing, talking about the good old days. He'd be talking about timeless principles and how they apply to the world we're in today and going forward. And I think it's great to pay tribute to Ronald Reagan. He was one of the greatest presidents ever.


KING: Ahead: a scary moment for Australia's leader.

Plus, what happened on that tarmac in Arizona? Governor Jan Brewer on her exchange with the president.



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John will be back right after the break, but, coming up: Moments after she had a tense encounter with President Obama, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said this.


GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: I respect the office of the president. And I would never be disrespectful in that manner.

QUESTION: Did he walk away from you at the end?

BREWER: I believe that when we were in the conversation, that I was in the middle of a sentence, and he walked away.


BOLDUAN: So, 24 hours later, would she still handle it the same way? She will join us live next.


KING: (AUDIO GAP) Brewer joins us to talk about her tarmac confrontation with President Obama.

Also, Egypt refuses to let a U.S. citizen leave. This particular citizen happens to be the son of this country's transportation secretary.

Plus a dramatic reminder about why you should get rid of the snow piling up on your roof.

Tonight we're at the University of North Florida right here in Jacksonville where the Republican presidential candidates about 90 minutes now away from their final debate before Tuesday's Florida primary. It's also being called the Reagan primary. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here.

Gloria, these Republican candidates and these Republican supporters behind us, they're trying to compare themselves to the former president Reagan. What's that about?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Everybody wants to have the mantle of Ronald Reagan. You know, if Ronald Reagan were running in this primary, I think he would win.

But Newt Gingrich -- Newt Gingrich has been saying he's the real conservative in this race. He's the person most deserving of the Reagan mantle. The "New York Times" today counted all the times that Newt Gingrich mentioned Ronald Reagan in the debates. And it was like 50 times.

Now, what Mitt Romney is saying, he has an ad up saying, "You know what? Reagan only mentioned you in his diary in one sentence. So you're not really the heir to the throne."

KING: Let's listen to that ad. Restore our Future, the pro- Romney super PAC, has that ad. Let's listen to a little bit of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reagan criticized Gingrich, saying Newt's ideas, quote, "would cripple our defense program." Reagan rejected Newt's ideas on leadership and character. Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan.


KING: Elliott Abrams, who also served back in the Reagan administration, writing an article in "National Review," saying, "Newt Gingrich voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered. For at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership, Gingrich chose to attack Reagan."

So you have some Reagan people coming out and jumping into this fray.

BORGER: Right. They're jumping in, and they're surrogates for Mitt Romney at this point, whether they're they've endorsed him or not. Saying you know what? It was a little more complicated than that. A lot more complicated than that.

And what Elliott Abrams is referring to is that Newt Gingrich took to the floor and said, "You know what? We're not -- the Reagan administration is not doing enough to support getting rid of the Soviet empire. Instead they're spending money on funding the Contras in Nicaragua." Does that remind you of a certain time?

KING: It does remind you of a certain time. If Ronald Reagan were here we have some Occupy protesters behind us. They're welcome on the campus. It's an open debate here. Obviously, First Amendment. Ronald Reagan might say we're paying for this microphone. Does it matter or is it trivial? That they're having this "I'm Ronald Reagan"? "No, I'm Ronald Reagan." "No, I'm Ronald Reagan."

BORGER: I think -- I think it matters because they want to say, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most conservative and the true conservative of them all."

But what Jeb Bush said to you before, I think, is something that Ronald Reagan would agree with. And that is, you know what? You guys are arguing with each other this way, and you're giving the Democrats all kinds of ammunition. And it's not the way the party needs to present itself to the American public if you want to win an election. And I think that's what Ronald Reagan would say.

KING: I don't want to suggest any drinking games but maybe just a game. We'll count how many times Ronald Reagan gets mentioned in the debate tonight.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger. Gloria, thanks.

BORGER: Tons of times, definitely.

KING: There you go.

Mitt Romney's campaign acknowledged tonight it's looking over discrepancies between the former Massachusetts governor's tax returns and his ethics and disclosure forms. "The Los Angeles Times" says Romney's 2010 taxes reveal at least 23 funds and partnerships that were not explicitly listed in a financial disclosure form he filed last August.

The newspaper says that list includes a now-closed Swiss bank account and other funds located overseas. A Romney campaign official tells us the discrepancies are, in their view, trivial but will be corrected.

Looking overseas now, there's outrage and worry tonight after Egypt refused to let a U.S. citizen leave for home. Sam LaHood is the son of the U.S. transportation secretary, Ray LaHood. He's associated with one of the international organizations working to improve conditions in Egypt and has become a target now of harassment by security forces.

CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty joins us.

And Jill, you spoke with Sam LaHood earlier today. Let's first listen to a snippet of that phone conversation.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sam, do you feel safe where you are at this point?

SAM LAHOOD, DETAINED IN EGYPT (via phone): You know, I feel safe physically. You know, obviously, the fact that the investigative judge chose to prevent some of us from traveling is something that our lawyer tells us indicates that this investigation has taken on a more serious nature, and the next step from here would either be arrest or go to trial.


KING: Jill, spell out what we do think the most likely next step will be.

DOUGHERTY: Boy, it's a complex situation and pretty unpredictable. You know, trial he's mentioning or arrest. That would be very, very serious.

One of the problems is, you know, this goes back quite a while. At least a month, even previous months, where the government has been cracking down on these non-governmental organizations, IRI being one of them. And the United States has been vociferous in saying this should not happen. When they raided the offices, the government promised today do something to return the property for these NGOs, and they never did. So what is going to happen?

And John, just quickly on the budget, they get a very large amount of money from U.S. Taxpayers. And there's anger on Capitol Hill. But if you push that, if you pull the plug on that, it could really damage Egypt at a very, very sensitive time after the Arab Spring.

KING: Fascinating report from Jill Lawrence [SIC] at the State Department. Jill Dougherty, I'm sorry. Jill, thank you very much.

President Obama is spending the night in Detroit after making stops in Nevada and Colorado to promote his economic plans. But most of the buzz today centers not on that but what happened last night during a stop in Phoenix where he got into with what Republican governor Jan Brewer described as a heated encounter.

Governor Brewer joins us now to tell us all about it.

Governor, I've been following the tweets today. And the president got off the plane. You handed him a handwritten note. At one point there appeared to be some finger pointing. Take us back to that moment. And there are a lot of people saying, you know, he's the president of the United States. Whether you disagree or not, perhaps you should have shown him a bit more respect.

GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: Well, first, thank you, John, for having me on. First, let me say that I respect the office of the president. And when I went to meet him at the tarmac, I went with a happy heart. I was pleased that he was coming to Arizona to see the Arizona comeback, to be part of it firsthand.

So when I arrived there and before I left the office I wrote a handwritten note to welcome him to Arizona and to tell him about our comeback in regards to what we have done here. And I wanted to ask him for the opportunity to sit down and share with him that information. And then in the last sentence I reiterated my invitation for him to come down to the border and see what's going on and that I would buy him lunch.

And he turned that conversation immediately to my book, "Scorpions for Breakfast" and was somewhat distraught, disappointed about the way that he was portrayed in that book.

KING: The president told this tonight to ABC's Diane Sawyer. He says, "It's all good publicity for a Republican if they're in an argument with me." The president says it wasn't really a big deal. Were you trying to create a scene here? There are some people suggesting you wanted to have a scene with the president so you could sell more of your books.

BREWER: Absolutely not. That's absolutely ridiculous. I never brought the book up. He brought the book up. And he didn't even talk to me about what the book was really about. It was about illegal immigration and securing our border, which I've wanted to talk to him about on numerous occasions and have had that opportunity.

But he didn't bring up securing the border. You know -- all he's concerned about is amnesty. So it was not about the book, absolutely not. And I would have thought that in a 2 1/2 months since the book has been out that he would have called me or contacted me if he was disappointed in the book. So it was not anything that is of a publicity stunt. Just the truth.

And I stand on what I wrote in the book, by the way, John.

KING: The White House takes issue. You say you stand by what you wrote in the book. I want to go back in time, because the White House says your character relation in the book is very different. And you and I had a conversation when you walked out of that Oval Office meeting with president. And here's what you said then just moments after the meeting.


BREWER: I feel as I left today that I am further ahead than I was before I met with him. Because I had no answers. He has now told me that I would have information within two weeks that he would be sending staff out to Arizona to give me the details. So with that, I feel that it was a successful meeting. And I'm encouraged by that.


KING: A successful meeting. I'm encouraged by that, Governor Brewer. Here's what you wrote in the book. "We sat down and started with some chitchat. But after a few minutes the president's tone got serious and condescending. It wasn't long before I realized I was hearing the president's stump speech, only I was supposed to listen without talking. It was as though President Obama thought he would lecture me and I would learn at his knee. He was patronizing."

Which is it, Governor?

BREWER: Well, the bottom line is that I was hopeful when I left the White House, leaving on what I believed a promise that he was going to be out to Arizona with some answers and that he was going to work with us to secure the border.

But as we soon found out, that didn't happen in that manner. He came out about, I guess, about a month later. And there were no answers. He wants comprehensive immigration reform. I want my border secured.

I tried to be cordial. I was cordial yesterday. And I will still reach out to the president. You know, I know that he loves his country. I know that I love this country. I want to do what I believe is right for the people of Arizona and for all Americans. And I will not back down on what I've stated in my book.

KING: Governor Jan Brewer, appreciate your time tonight explaining that confrontation. We'll see you soon as the Republican presidential camp makes its way out to your great state of Arizona.

Governor, thank you.

The White House tonight is coping with a new and potentially embarrassing distraction from the president's post-State-of-the-Union address. A company that makes batteries for electric cars and accepted $118 million in U.S. government stimulus money a few years ago just filed for bankruptcy.

But officials are going out of their way to point out differences, they say, between this case and another high-profile bankruptcy, the solar panel manufacturer called Solyndra.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is with the president in Colorado.

Jess, what do they say is the big difference and distinction?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The big difference first, John, there are two. The first is that the parent company for this organization, Ener-1, is filing for bankruptcy, but the group that actually got the Department of Energy grant is still in full operation. All its employees are hard at work. And it is functioning just fine, they say.

Here's what the Department of Energy statement is: "While it's unfortunate that Ener-1, the parent company, has entered a restructuring process" -- that's bankruptcy -- "the restructuring is not expected to impact EnerDel's operations, and they do not expect to reduce employment at the site."

The other distinction they point out is that this company got a grant, not a loan, and that full grant was matched by private dollars. Also, this company has a bipartisan support. Both the Republican governor Mitch Daniels and the Republican Senator Lugar are big supporters of the company and have visited there many times, John.

KING: And Jess, do they worry at all that in the State-of-the- Union address the president stood by those incentives for clean energy and green energy? Do they worry at all that a headline like this, even if they say it can be explained away, the bipartisan support they were able to distract from the president's sales message at all this week?

YELLIN: Of course, it's a problem. Because we're talking about it now instead of talking about his energy message, which is what he was here selling. But their overarching message on this one is they can't be worried that some failures should distract from the overall point, which is that they want to invest in clean energy.

But they do know this is going to come up on the campaign over and over. And they know that they're just going to have to keep hitting back, John.

KING: Jessica Yellin with the president on the road. Live for us tonight. Jess, thank you.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Erin is here on the campus with a preview. We've got a little feisty crowd behind us here.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: We do. They're passionate. You hear "Occupy." You hear "Ron Paul." You hear it all.

KING: A little bit of everything. What have you got?

BURNETT: So in Florida obviously, 1.6 million vacant homes; 350,000 jobs have been lost in constructions here since the top. So we've got all kinds of problems in construction. We've got the CEO of the second biggest home builder in the state and the second biggest in the country. They'll talk to us about where things are and -- you know, this state doesn't have an income tax. It's all based on property tax. They're trying to lay more people off in the state government. So is there a way out of it? We're going to be talking about that with Stewart Miller of Bernard's (ph). Plus Ari Fleischer, David Gergen, Gloria Borger, the whole gang, John, and you.

KING: With the gang. I'll be back, as well. Interesting to see if the housing -- hopefully a lot of housing conversation tonight.

BURNETT: I hope so.

KING: Critical in this state. We move on to Nevada, big issue.

Erin will be back in just a few minutes.

BURNETT: All right.

KING: Thank you.

The Pentagon is getting specific now about how it plans to cut a half trillion dollars in spending. Coming up, we'll tell you what isn't -- is not -- on the chopping block.

And if you want to see the Super Bowl in person -- hey, I'd like to see the Super Bowl in person -- there are still tickets, but they' re going to cost you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: We're back live at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. As you can see, some students behind us getting excited about the debate coming up in a little more than an hour.

Tonight's "Truth" is short and simple. These debates are having a supersized impact on the presidential race. And tonight, right here on CNN, it comes at a very consequential time: a dead heat, maybe a slight Romney edge in Florida. And the tensions between the Gingrich and the Romney campaigns, well, they're reaching a boiling point.

I know some of you have debate fatigue. And some veterans of past campaigns, Senator John McCain, for example, say there have been too many debates. But CNN and other media organizations can't hold these debates unless the candidates agree to them, and the voters clearly like them.

Tonight's is the 19th nationally televised debate. And so far they've had a combined audience of roughly 88 million viewers. Just in the past week, more than 12 million tuned in for our debate, CNN's debate, in South Carolina and NBC's Florida debate right here Monday night.

Truth is, we've learned a lot more about the candidates: what they think, how they feel about issues like taxes and spending and how they handle missteps and surprises. A lot about what they believe and who they are.

Given the stakes tonight, I'm betting we're about to learn a little more.

CNN contributors Donna Brazile, Alex Castellanos and Ari Fleischer and here with their debate thoughts. And let me start, Ari, with you on the end. You've worked in a lot of campaigns. Too many debates, not enough debates? About right?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it's too many debates. But...

KING: No, it's not.

FLEISCHER: But on the other hand, it's kind of like music, the crescendos. Right? Each debates is getting more important the fewer the candidates are. These are now the singular events that drive voter behavior. And if you thought a guy with no money could win Iowa, that debates were what's influencing voters more than money or ads, it's actually pretty good for democracy.

KING: So now you're down to four, and you're in a big state. How much -- the debates in South Carolina were important. The debates in Iowa, very important. Romney sort of had New Hampshire wired. In a big state like this, you know, some TV ads. How much -- how factor in the debates?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think these debates tonight is huge. This is the biggest one yet of the campaign. As a matter of fact, may be the biggest one at the end. Because tonight is Romney versus Gingrich. It's the last two men standing, really, for the nomination.

And if Mitt Romney can tie tonight, the tie will probably go to him. Because it looks like some of the negatives on Gingrich -- the problems with the ex-wife -- are beginning to bite now this week. We're seeing some gender issues. But this is the biggest debate by far that we've had.

KING: I want to come back to that. But Rick Santorum and Ron Paul would say what about us? And the polling shows a two-man race. And psychology, you've been in a lot of campaigns. If you're third or fourth, when voters start to think this really matters and they think it's a two-man race, it's harder for the little guys to break through, because the voters want to be in the fight, right?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, if the top two candidates for some reason, you know, cancel each other out, then one of the third- or fourth-place finishers can at some point rebound the same way that Newt Gingrich has been able to rebound.

Two-thirds of voters in South Carolina said that the debates matter. So this is a crucial moment for Mitt Romney. He has to slow Gingrich's momentum. On the other hand, Newt Gingrich has to now show that he's electable and he has the presidential temperament that matters to so many voters.

FLEISCHER: If Newt Gingrich looks like he's going to do really well and keep going, the establishment Republicans best friend is about to be Ron Paul, because they want Ron Paul and Rick Santorum to stay in, keep getting delegates, so Newt doesn't get 50 percent of the delegates. This is going to turn into an interesting chess game if Newt keeps going.

KING: You mentioned the establishment, somebody like Bob Dole, a former nominee in the party, a legend in the Republican ranks. He comes out today, he backs Romney. He has this damning statement about Newt Gingrich. Why do I have the impression among Tea Party voters here, that helps Newt? It doesn't hurt Newt, right?

CASTELLANOS: It doesn't hurt Newt. But also, when the entire GOP establishment, including the conservative wing that worked with Newt in Congress, is not for him, that does tell you something.

It's not just the Republican establishment, John. It's every Republican who's on the ballot, who's on if a swing state, who's worried that Newt Gingrich is Goldwater and may take the party down. You know, if Newt Gingrich is Goldwater, we go back to the first two years of the Obama administration. Democrats controlling House, Senate and the White House. We saw what happened.

KING: Alex mentioned that he thinks sometimes it takes a week or so for things to have an impact. In South Carolina, after Gingrich's second ex-wife came forward, raised some personal character questions, it was no gender gap at all. Newt Gingrich one among many, one among women.

Here in the polling, you do see a gender gap. Do you think it's tied back to that, or do you think it's just that Romney has higher appeal with women voters?

BRAZILE: Well, I do think that -- the issue of his second wife talking to the media and basically saying that they had some -- they had some differences, that hurt him with women. South Carolina women may have been forgiving, but I think long-term, including in Florida, women will not be forgiving, especially independent women. They may not play a role in Florida but, they will determine the outcome this fall.

KING: Got a little more than a minute left. Your biggest question. We'll start at Ari and work our way down. Your biggest question, going into the debate, the thing you're most looking for.

FLEISCHER: OK. Newt just turned it up again, just a crack. That alpha male out there says go Republican. That's no scheme.

CASTELLANOS: Who takes the audience tonight? Who reaches out and takes them and can Mitt Romney demonstrate strength. And also, can Newt Gingrich demonstrate likability?

You know, great old Bob Dole story. Newt came up to him one time and said, "Senator, I don't understand why so many people take an instant dislike to me."

Dole goes, "Oh, saves them time."

BRAZILE: There's no question that Mitt Romney will be on the hot seat regarding his finances. He put out his taxes and now, there are questions being raised as to whether this Swiss bank account was included on his financial disclosure. It may be a small issue, but I guarantee, somebody will make a big deal out of it.

KING: Now on this campus with all this passion, do you guys know how to do the swoop? They're the Ospreys here. Do you know how to do the swoop?


KING: Show them the swoop! The swoop! All right. We'll see. Can't get them. They're too busy getting ready for the debate. Ari, Alex, Donna, thanks.

Still ahead here, he's hosted "Wheel of Fortune" for more than 30 years, but Pat Sajak's revealing he hasn't always been sober for every show. That's his secret.

Plus, chaos as a snow-covered roof collapses over an ice rink in Slovakia.


KING: Welcome back. Kate Bolduan's here with more news you need to know right now.

Hi, there.


Good evening again, everyone. Catching you up on some more news.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta got specific today about how the military will cut half a trillion dollars in spending over the next ten years. The Army and Marines will have fewer troops. The Air Force will reduce its air lift fleet, its tactical squadrons. The Navy will retire older ships, and pay raises will be more limited after 2015.

Two areas not getting cuts: special forces like the Navy SEALs and unmanned drones.

And in case you need inspiration to clean the snow off your roof, we give you an ice rink in Slovakia where they didn't. Let's take a look at that. Nobody was hurt, thankfully, when it came in. But some hockey players clearly need to find a new place to practice. I would say so.

And John, if you want to be in the stadium for the Patriots- Giants Super Bowl game, which of course you know you do, the good news is yes, you can still find a ticket, but the average price is about $3,000. The ticket exchange site says the most anyone's paid so far is $17,048 for a seat on the 40-yard line. The cheapest nosebleed seats so far: a mere $2,614. Not too bad or really bad. Depending on how bad you want to go to that game.

OK, John. I know you've been very, very busy prepping for tonight's big debate and getting ready, so I'm going to give you the "Moment You May Have Missed" today. When you -- Pat Sajak, "Wheel of Fortune" host since 1981, says on some of the old shows, he and Vanna White were a bit tipsy.


PAT SAJAK, HOST, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE": At NBC in Burbank, we had a place called Los Arkos (ph) across the street, which is Spanish, as you know, for "The Arkos (ph)." And we both -- and they served great margaritas. So we would go -- Vanna and I would go across and have two or three or six and then come and do the last shows and have trouble recognizing the alphabet. They are really good tapes to get hold of.


BOLDUAN: I mean, I know he was joking, but two, three or six margaritas?

KING: I want to buy a vowel? Excuse me?

BOLDUAN: A vowel or a shot.

KING: We tried that when we started this show, Kate. When we started this show, we were talking about it with the management. I said what about we take the "Mad Men" example and we turn the set into Don Draper's office? And every guest that walks in, we say, "Can I get you a drink?" It was a two-word answer. Guess what it was?

BOLDUAN: I'm guessing it was no, only because they just couldn't handle how crazy and fun the show would be. But it's impossible that the show would be any more fun. Look at the crowd you've got behind you. I don't know. Maybe -- maybe they were taking Pat Sajak's advice.

KING: I think -- I think some of the crowd behind us has taken Pat Sajak's advice tonight. But I got the two-word -- the two-word version of no, which was "career ending." That was what the management said on that one.

Kate -- Kate, we'll see you tomorrow. A little more than an hour away now from the big CNN Republican debate here in Florida. Here to get you revved up and warmed up, the big issues in this state and the campaign, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.