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Republicans Prepare for Florida Debate; Permanent Moon Colony?; Obama's Arizona Tarmac Tiff; Interview With Florida Governor Rick Scott; Rallies, Deadly Clashes In Syria; 38 Million Acres Of Gulf Oil Leases For Sale; Australian Prime Minister Shaken By Angry Protest; Ice Rink Roof Collapse Caught On Tape; What Gingrich Needs To Do Tonight

Aired January 26, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Sparks are already flying only hours before the Republican candidates take the stage in this, their last face-off before the Florida primary. I will moderate tonight's Republican debate right here on CNN.

Everyone's talking about the tension on the tarmac, an in-your- face airport encounter between President Obama and Arizona's Republican governor. What was that all about?

And Newt Gingrich vows to establish a permanent colony on the moon. Will that idea take off with voters?

I'm Wolf Blitzer on the campus of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just four hours from now, the four remaining Republican candidates will square off right here in Jacksonville. It's the final debate before next Tuesday's crucial Florida primary. And it's become a grudge match between the front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here, also CNN's Jim Acosta, who has been covering this campaign.

Jim, let me start with you. It looks -- correct me if I'm wrong. It looks like Romney may try tonight to go to the jugular.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Somebody may go to the moon tonight, but it won't be to establish a lunar colony, Wolf. Just listening to the rhetoric out on the campaign trail today, the only thing missing at tonight's CNN debate will be the steel cage.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're getting ready for another debate tonight. I can't wait.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Mitt Romney seems to be channeling his inner Newt Gingrich, egging on his supporters to make some noise at the CNN debate.

ROMNEY: If you all can get there, we would love to see you there cheering and being part of that -- no tickets, huh? Well, just storm in.

NARRATOR: Nancy Pelosi served on the committee that found Newt Gingrich guilty of ethics violations.

ACOSTA: And his campaign is running the kind of negative ads that were once left to a pro-Romney super PAC. This new spot cites House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's interview with CNN's John King earlier this week.


ACOSTA: When she said she was holding on to damaging information about Gingrich.

NARRATOR: Information so damaging, it would help Obama win. Newt Gingrich -- we can't afford the risk.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think all the weight of his negative advertising and all the weight of his dishonesty has hurt us some.

ACOSTA: Gingrich is still fighting off days of charges from Romney that he was essentially a lobbyist for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Now the former speaker is trying to tie Romney to Florida's foreclosure crisis, pointing to his rival's past investments in a Goldman Sachs fund that owned troubled mortgages.

GINGRICH: I am running as president to represent you, not to represent the Washington lobbyists, not to represent Goldman Sachs, not to represent the people who have been ruining this country, and I need your help.

ACOSTA: The former speaker is fending off another Romney attack that he's not a true conservative by blasting out this video. It shows Nancy Reagan praising Gingrich.

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY: Barry Goldwater handed the torch to Ronnie, and in turn Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican members of Congress to keep that dream alive.

ACOSTA: All week, the Romney-Gingrich smackdown has overshadowed Rick Santorum, who's down in the polls and denying rumors he's considering dropping out.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know they're coming from. They're coming from the other camps. I get that. I guarantee you, I guarantee you we will be in this race for a long time.


ACOSTA: Just to give you a sense as to how ugly this race has become, the Romney campaigned sent out an e-mail to reporters earlier today that referred to Newt Gingrich as Dr. Newt and Mr. Hyde, with the hashtag unhinged. That's exactly the kind of opposition material Democrats will be accumulating for the general election campaign in the fall, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim, stand by for a second.

I want to bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's getting ready to watch tonight's debate.

I'm getting ready to moderate tonight's debate.


BLITZER: Romney really went after Gingrich in Monday night's debate. What do you expect will happen tonight?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think what we saw in our poll this week is that Romney's numbers after the debate started to increase in this state.

So the Romney people I talk to sort of say, you know, good to play offense rather than defense. So I would assume that Romney would continue to go at him. But it's a fine line, because too much attacking makes you seem kind of whiny, and Romney is not known as a terrific attack politician.

In fact, Newt Gingrich is known as someone who is much more deft with it. What I would expect though is for Gingrich to fight back more, because in the last debate, he was a little more demure, if you will.


BLITZER: Will Gingrich fight back more aggressively tonight?

ACOSTA: I think so. I think he was saving himself Monday night for a big, all-out assault tonight. Both sides are playing as if this is the Super Bowl here in Florida, Wolf.

And one thing that I picked on last week when we were in South Carolina is that Mitt Romney seemed to be on the defensive, talking about those tax returns. This week, it seems that has flipped and it's Newt Gingrich who has been on the defensive over these issues with Freddie Mac and whether he's a true Reagan conservative. He's the one who has been on his heels. He needs to turn that around tonight.

BLITZER: They're both fighting over the Ronald Reagan legacy and where they fit into that, Gloria.

BORGER: This is a Reagan primary, I think. If Reagan were alive, he would win, right?

ACOSTA: We wouldn't like this rhetoric because... BORGER: No, he would not like this rhetoric.

But Newt Gingrich, according to "The New York Times" has mentioned Ronald Reagan, what, more than 50 times in these debates. It's part of trying to tell the voters that you are a conservative and you are the conservative heir to Ronald Reagan.

The Romney campaign is responding by saying, by the way, you were only mentioned once in the Reagan diaries. You are not the heir. And Gingrich fights back and shows that video that you showed of Nancy Reagan saying she's passing the torch to Newt Gingrich.

And, by the way, Mitt Romney, where were you? You were running for Senate in 1994 in Massachusetts, and you were saying -- quote -- "I was an independent during Reagan/Bush." So there will be quite a fight over that.

BLITZER: The fact is hundreds of thousands of Floridians, and we're in Florida right now, early voting is allowed. They voted already.

BORGER: Right. You have got absentee ballots and you have got early voting. I was talking to an official with the Republican Party here in the state today who said to me they have got about 200,000 early voters between early and absentee, and they expect turnout to be about two million Republicans.

Back in 2008, it was about 1.9 million. So they expect it to be up. It's an exciting race here.

BLITZER: That could be a factor as well depending if they voted a few days ago. And they could change their mind, but it might too late for them if they have already voted.

Guys, thanks very much.

President Obama meanwhile is making the rounds of some key battleground states. His tour is taking him today to Nevada and Colorado, but everyone is talking about yesterday's stop in Arizona and an in-your-face encounter with the Republican governor there, Jan Brewer.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, has the story for us.

Dan, what exactly happened? And what's the fallout?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Wolf, as know, you have traveled with presidents in the past. When they fly into various states or even around the world, they're met by officials, either state officials or local officials, and it's not very controversial.

But this time it was different. At the heart of it all, border security, a book and an Oval Office meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LOTHIAN (voice-over): It's the watercooler story of the day, the tarmac tiff. President Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer clash over her account of an Oval Office meeting in 2010 on immigration and border security.

GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, was a little bit disenchanted, if you will, about how he was portrayed in the book.

LOTHIAN: Governor Brewer's book "Scorpions for Breakfast" deals with border security, and discusses her meeting with the president.

In this passage, she writes, "The president's tone got serious and condescending, and that he proceeded to lecture me." But a White House officials says the governor inaccurately described the meeting in her book. In fact, at the time, she appeared to paint a much different picture.

BREWER: It was a very cordial discussion. I feel that it was a successful meeting, and I'm encouraged by that.

LOTHIAN: The testy tarmac exchange aside, the issue of immigration is back in the headlines, just days after the president again pushed for comprehensive reform during his State of the Union address.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We should take on illegal immigration.

LOTHIAN: It's a top issue for Latinos, who in 2008 voted 2-1 for President Obama over Senator John McCain, 67 percent to 31 percent.

But Ali Noorani, executive director of the Immigration forum, says in 2012, the Latino community is up for grabs.

ALI NOORANI, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM: They realize that President Obama has deported more immigrants, more Latinos than any previous administration, but they also know that Republicans stood in the way of the DREAM Act and Republicans frankly haven't put a proposal to fix the immigration system on the table.

LOTHIAN: Latinos are frustrated at the pace of reforms. President Obama is courting this crucial segment of the base, doing an interview with Spanish-language television, pushing his policies in states like Arizona and Nevada with heavy Latino populations.

Even the first lady is in another key state, Florida, joining Latino organizations in promoting healthy eating habits.

NOORANI: At the end of the day, good policy makes for good politics.


LOTHIAN: Now, back to Governor Brewer, she said all she wanted to do was welcome the president to her state, invite him to another meeting, and then talk about the economic recovery in her state. She says she respects the office of the presidency, and never meant to be disrespectful -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dan, thanks very, very much. That iconic photo of her with her finger up, that's going to last, I suspect, for some time.

The moon -- yes, the moon suddenly and surprisingly a campaign issue right here in Florida. We have details of what Newt Gingrich said and why his rivals are now slamming it.

And the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, he's disappointed many Republicans by deciding against a White House run. What does he make of this campaign unfolding here in Florida right now?

Plus, my interview with Florida's current governor, Rick Scott. He's not endorsing anyone, at least not yet. He is though speaking highly of one particular candidate.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Newt Gingrich is sending chills down the spines of establishment Republicans, and it is positively entertaining to watch.

These Republicans say things like it would be a disaster if he's the nominee. There's a reason most people who know him best aren't supporting him, and Newt means losing 45 states. These establishment GOPers say they're worried Gingrich could bring back the erratic, chaotic and crazy leadership from his time as speaker of the House.

And what's more, many worry that Gingrich at the top of the ticket could drag down Republican candidates for the House and Senate. In a nutshell, they don't think Gingrich could ever beat President Obama.

In fact, so far, only 12 sitting Republican lawmakers have backed Gingrich, while more than 60 support Mitt Romney. Many who worry about Gingrich also say they doubt he'll be the party's nominee.

The irony here is that being the anti-establishment candidate could be the best thing Gingrich has going for him. The so-called establishment includes a few hundred of the most powerful and elite Republicans, from lobbyists to senior members of Congress to TV and newspaper pundits.

But Americans are pretty much fed up with the political establishment. Have you noticed? And if the inner circle of Republicans is nervous about Newt, well, it could actually help him with the average voter.

Gingrich also seems to thrive when he's playing the insurgent. Meanwhile, you can bet the GOP establishment has got a close eye on Florida. They say they're not at DEFCON 5 yet, but they might there if Gingrich manages to pull out Florida in the primary next week, and presents an even more serious challenge to Mitt Romney. I love this.

Here's the question: is it good or bad that Newt Gingrich makes establishment Republicans nervous? And he does. Go to Post a comment on my blog, or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

BLITZER: Good question, Jack. Thanks very much. It sets up perfectly my next guest.

Rick Scott, he's the governor of this beautiful state.

Governor Scott, thanks very much for coming in. And let me just pick up where Jack left off and read to you what Bob Dole, the Republican presidential -- former Republican presidential nominee, just like John McCain four years ago, blasting Newt Gingrich.

This is what Bob Dole issued a statement today saying this, "If Gingrich is the nominee, it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices. Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one man band who rarely took advice. In my opinion," it's still from Bob Dole, "if we want to avoid a sweeping victory by Obama in November, Republicans should nominate Governor Romney as our standard bearer."

What do you think? Are you with Bob Dole on the potential downside of picking Newt Gingrich?

GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: Well, see, I was not the establishment candidate. I did not get the -- I'm a business guy. This is the first time I ran for office. So, I think, you know, this state elected somebody that wasn't an establishment candidate. I got elected on a jobs' plan. I think what they all talk about and I hope he'll talk about tonight is jobs.

I mean, what we want in Florida, we want something to help our state get back to work. We've had a lot of success this last year, unemployment dropped 2.1 percent, second fastest in the country. But we need federal help, we need a federal partner, not help, really, a federal partner that's going to think the same way we do lower taxes, less regulation, less litigation, and get our state back to work.

BLITZER: I know you haven't endorsed anyone yet. And it's getting closer to Tuesday. That's when the Florida primary takes place, but you did say some nice things the other day about Mitt Romney.

Let me play this little clip. It was from a radio show, "America's Morning News." Play this clip and then we'll discuss.


SCOTT: If you're going to hire somebody -- we're basically hiring a new president, would you hire someone successful in business or somebody that was unsuccessful? The thing that Mitt Romney has going for him, all right, is he was successful in business. He lived the American Dream. He said, 'Look, this is the greatest country in the world and I can go build companies,' and that's what he did.


BLITZER: Sounds pretty close to an endorsement. Give me your interpretation.

SCOTT: Well, here's what I believe. I believe the candidate that has the best jobs plan is going to be the candidate that wins. You know, all these candidates, you know, are going beat President Obama because unfortunately hasn't been able to turn around our economy. They all bring something different in the table. I think in the end, though, the candidates are going to win if they have, you know, three, five, seven steps to how they're going to turn our economy around, that's what we want in Florida.

Now, like I said, we've had a lot of success -- 140,000 private sector jobs last year. But we need a federal partner.

BLITZER: So, of these four candidates, I'm sure they've studied their jobs plans, each one -- who do you think has the best plan as you see it right now?

SCOTT: I don't think they've talked enough about jobs. I think there's way too much attack, you know, in this, just talking about some of these negatives. Ultimately, that doesn't work. You've got to give people reason to vote for you. In my case, seven steps to 700,000 thousands over seven years. You know, we're beating that right now to do it.

So, I think they're making a mistake by doing all the attacks. I think they ought to be saying this is how I'm going to turnaround this economy, this is what I'm going to do to get you back to work, or make sure you keep your job. That's what I think all of them need to spend more time doing that. And they're not doing it enough.

BLITZER: Well, if you look at their Web sites, if you look at their speeches, Governor, with all due respect, and I have, I've been preparing like crazy, this is the third debate I'm going to be moderating later tonight, they have extensive proposals on how to create jobs, how to improve the economy, 50 steps here for Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich has a very, very detailed plan. So does Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. They have very detailed plans, all of them, I'm sure, they would tell you that.

Have you met with any of these four?

SCOTT: Absolutely. Wolf, if you look at it. If you -- maybe I don't see all ads down here, but all the ads I see are negative. They're not saying these are the three or five or seven things I'm going to do to turn around the federal economy and make sure this is the greatest company to build businesses. We need -- instead of attacking the free market, we need to support the free market. That's how we get jobs going.

And so, that's what they ought to be talking about instead of some of these other things that they're talking about.

So, I hope tonight and I know you sort of run - you're running the show. So, I hope tonight that these candidates will talk more about what they're doing to create jobs rather than saying this is person is negative for these reasons.

BLITZER: All right, Governor, thanks very much. I know you'll be watching here in Tallahassee, the state capital. Appreciate very much the hospitality we're getting from all the Floridians.

SCOTT: Have a great time.


BLITZER: -- Governor Rick Scott. Thank you very much. We will.

Coming up, a man base on the moon by 2020? Newt Gingrich is getting slammed here in Florida for his proposal. Alex Castellanos and Maria Cardona, they're both standing by for our strategy session.

And in the wake of a daring rescue operation, new questions about U.S. Special Operations Forces, why one former commander says they're starting to fray.


BLITZER: Let's right to our strategy session.

Joining us here in Jacksonville, our CNN contributors, the Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, and the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

Guys, thanks very much for joining me. Lovely campus here, isn't it?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's beautiful. Absolutely. I love the energy.

BLITZER: I love this place. University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

All right. Newt Gingrich had a comment today. I'm going to play a clip from what he had to say about his proposals for space and the response from Rick Santorum. Listen to this.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: By the end of my second term --


GINGRICH: -- we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The idea that anybody's 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 of the problems.



BLITZER: Alex, Newt Gingrich said this is a bold idea, obviously popular with a lot of unemployed NASA workers, along the space coast as they call it, here in Florida. But some are ridiculing him already.

What do you think?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think Newt Gingrich's campaign launches a lot of rockets. Some of them take his campaign to the moon, some of them land on grandma's house. You just never know with Newt -- but this is actually a good idea. The space program is one of the few things that has produced economic growth, something that the private sector hasn't been able to do. It produced everything from Tang to WD-40 to the microchip and the computer.

So, and -- right, you're right, Wolf, the gold coast of Florida, there are so many people who not only have lost their jobs, but they've lost their confidence in America's future. I think this is a very smart move, tactically and strategically for Gingrich.

BLITZER: A colony of Americans living on the moon by the end of his second term if he's elected president. You're smiling.

CARDONA: Well, here's the issue. I do think it's a grandiose idea, and I think that Republican voters are desperate for one of their candidates to really capture their imagination. That's something that I think they're very thirsty for, and I agree in general, it is a great idea and it is what Americans like to hear.

But Rick Santorum is right, the reality of today, and if you actually look at Newt's economic plan that slashes Medicare, slashes Medicaid, and basically slashes all the programs that middle-class Americans and those that are most vulnerable need, that's where reality does not meet what he is saying.

CASTELLANOS: But you know what? He's really saying to Florida voters who are so pessimistic about the direction of the country, is there once was a country that can do great things, we can be that country again. I think it's going to help a little.

CARDONA: It might work for him here.

BLITZER: You wrote this last May. You wrote a little column. Newt Gingrich is the devil in a red dress. I'll read to you and I'll remind you, Alex, what you wrote.

You wrote, "The opponent Obama needs to run against, the only one he can beat is the old, uncaring Republican. It is not the caricature he needs to create. It lives, it walks, it breathes. It's the Gingrich. In this operatic campaign of seduction, he is the devil in a red dress, a temptress who would lead Republicans to ruin."

Do you still believe that?

CASTELLANOS: Put me down as undecided there, Wolf. Yes, I still believe that. I think Newt Gingrich has many great strengths he's going to bring (ph) for Republican Party. But he's Barry Goldwater. He is an expression of the party's principles, but he at the top of the ticket? He is such a polarizing force that -- you know, his favorable right now with independents is 21 percent with Obama's favorable with those independents, 51 percent. I think he would wipe out Republicans for the House. We may not win the Senate, we lose the presidency.

Newt Gingrich could very possibly bring back the first two years of the Obama administration when they ran everything, and, boy, that's not something Republicans I think want --

BLITZRE: He sounds like a Romney supporter. Bob Dole -- did you see Bob Dole's statement today? Very tough statement, saying very similar things.

It looks like the Republican establishment is really going after Newt Gingrich. But, ironically, as Jim Acosta earlier pointed out, that could help him.

CARDONA: That could absolutely help him, especially in this year that is very anti-Washington, anti-establishment.

And I actually think the more they go after Newt, the more it's going to hurt Romney. And, frankly, you're talking about independents, Romney's support among independents is cratering nationwide and I think that is what hurting Newt. It's not that Newt is great, it's that Romney is so wanting as the presumed front runner.

CASTELLANOS: And, Wolf, you just had Bob Dole expressing I think some of the same sentiments I expressed. But a great Bob Dole story, Newt asked him once when they were both in Congress. Why is it so many people take an instant dislike to me? And Bob Dole said, eh, saves them time.

BLITZER: Under the Hispanic vote, especially here in Florida, Latinos, they're going to be voting in big numbers, as both of you know, I don't know what percentage of the overall state is Hispanic or Latino. But it's significant right now. Republicans, Alex, and you're Cuban-American, they're in trouble with a lot of these voters right now, not necessarily Cuban-Americans in South Florida, but with others. Why?

CASTELLANOS: A little bit. I think the tone of some of the immigration debate has not been productive. It has sent a message that we're not just anti-illegal immigration, but we're anti- immigrant, and that's always a mistake. But there's good news, for a party that's doing poorly with Hispanics, we sure seemed to be doing. We've got Marco Rubio in the Senate, Suzanna Martinez, governor of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval, governor of Nevada.

We're winning elections, and you know, once we start looking at employment-based immigration, Republicans are very supportive of that, of expanding legal immigration. You know, out of a country of 300 million, do you know how many people we let come into this country every year for jobs, 140,000. That's it.

That's the cap we put every year. We have waiting lists that are a million people long, of smart, highly skilled people who want to come here and can't. We're sending our best intellectual draft choices other places. Republicans wants to fix that.

BLITZER: Can the president simply take the Hispanic vote for granted right now?

CARDONA: No, absolutely not and he's not doing that. For the very first time, this administration and the campaign is reaching out to Latinos in a way that they really had it before from the timing perspective.

So, you know, Alex is right, I wish the Republicans would actually hear his advice. Republicans are in trouble. And everything that you mentioned towards the end doesn't matter because Latinos are not going to listen to them.

If on the issue on immigration, on the Dream Act, Wolf, they used to be a bipartisan issue that overwhelmingly almost 80 percent Latinos support the Dream Act. Mitt Romney has already said that he would veto it. He said he would veto it.

BLITZER: He said military personnel would be able to qualify if they --

CARDONA: That's not the Dream Act.

CASTELLANOS: But you know the point on the Dream Act though is Hispanics know any other group I think in this country want to be bought off with a government subsidy.

I think it lessens Hispanics for us to say, unless you give them something, you won't get something. They come here for the opposite. Hispanics come here for opportunity, for a growing economy, for jobs, for an opportunity to raise their family.

CARDONA: I'm sorry, that's a ridiculous argument to make because Hispanics do not -- my family -- and my family came here too. They never expected a handout. They came here for freedom and came here for opportunity.

CASTELLANOS: Not for help.

CARDONA: They came for opportunity, and you know what? Republicans are not giving Hispanics the same opportunity they give people like Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: We're going to continue this conversation -- by the way, the Hispanic Leadership Network, which Governor Jeb Bush, conservative Republican governor co-sponsoring our debate tonight. We're going to get some questions from them remote. They're in Miami as some of you probably know. Thanks, guys.

Many Florida Republicans wanted Jeb Bush in the 2012 race. So what does he think of this nasty campaign? We're going to hear from the former governor.

And they killed Bin Laden and saved an American who was held hostage by pirates, but now major concerns at least by some that America's top secret, high-powered Special Operations Forces are fraying around the edges.


BLITZER: The budget act is falling once again on the U.S. military. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today is unveiling details of a plan to slice half a trillion dollars in spending over the next decade. Spending will not be reduced for Special Operations Forces, but now concerns about how those troops are in fact holding up.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. Chris, what's going on?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, the big news that we heard today was that the special operations budget is going to keep increasing over the next several years. But this issue with their workload is not a matter of money, but manpower.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): They killed Bin Laden, rescued an American hostage and a thousand other secret missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when it comes to Special Ops, how much is too much?

ADMIRAL ERIC OLSON (RETIRED), FORMER SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMANDER: I have said that this great force is beginning to fray around the edges.

LAWRENCE: The former Special Ops commander sounded the alarm last year, but Thursday, Pentagon officials announced Special Operations will be spared in the new spending cuts.

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: More opportunities for Special Operations Forces to assist and advice our partners in other regions.

LAWRENCE: Its budget went up 7 percent from last year to this year and it will keep growing, but it's manpower, not money that's an issue.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Obama has dramatically increased a covert war around the globe, relying more heavily than any of his predecessors particularly the last president on the use of Special Forces to achieve missions beyond counter-terror. LAWRENCE: So while some conventional troops have deployed on four or five combat troops.

MACKENZIE EAGLEN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Special Forces operators are in double-digit territory, 10th, 11th and 12th tours, this is simply unsustainable.

LAWRENCE: Budget cuts will mean 60,000 fewer soldiers, 20,000 fewer marines. That means a smaller pool for Special Ops to recruit from.

EALGEN: The Army and the Marine Corps will probably have some trepidation about losing ever more personnel to the Special Forces community.

LAWRENCE: It can take up to 30 months and half a million to train a single Special Operations fighter, compared to a few months and $50,000 for an infantryman. They can't be mass produce quickly, but Pentagon officials claim this budget accounts for that.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The Special Operating Forces can only be, quote/unquote "special" if there's a conventional force that allows them to conduct their operations and shape the environment. So we have to do all of this in balance. I'm confident we have done that.


LAWRENCE: And there are proposals for some potentially big changes with Special Operations Forces including establishing training centers closer to where they live so they don't have to travel to train quite so much.

But maybe more importantly establishing Special Operations networks around the globe to get them closer to potential problems that they may have to react to, and also as Panetta mentioned, to start building relationships with other armies to develop their own capabilities -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, good report. Thanks very, very much.

Here in Florida, the governor, at least the former Governor Jeb Bush goes one on one with our own John King and has some advice for Newt Gingrich in tonight's debate.

Speaking of tonight's debate, I'll show you a live picture of the debate floor. This is the Fine Arts Center, here on the campus of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. You see four podiums up there. I'll be moderating the debate. It all begins tonight 8 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.


BLITZER: Deadly new clashes in Syria. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what's going on? LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Wolf. Well, you wouldn't know it from Syrian State television, which is only showing pro-government rallies like this one.

But opposition activists say at least one member of the Syrian Security Forces was killed and nine injured in a clash with army defectors. And they report regime troops firing into homes.

CNN cannot independently confirm events because the Syrian government restricts news media access to the country.

The Obama administration is putting 38 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico up for sale for oil and gas leases. It's part of a new push to increase domestic energy production.

The Interior Department says the area could yield as much as 1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It's the only second such sale since the Gulf oil disaster in 2010.

And take a look at this, Australian Prime Minister Julia Julliard is rushed out of a restaurant by security officers as an angry mob surrounded the building and started banging on the windows.

They're members of an aboriginal rights group and they shouted shame and racist as dozens of police help escort her out. Local media reports Julliard was visibly shaken and stumbled during that encounter.

Some more grouping images for you, people fleeing in panic as the roof of an ice rink collapsed. This happens on Sunday in Slovakia. A very close call, but fortunately no one was hurt, among those who narrowly escaped, NHL veteran, Richard Zednic. He's former forward for the Washington -- and a native of Slovakia.

And Democratic Congressman Barney Frank plans to marry his long time partner in their home state of Massachusetts. A spokesman wouldn't give any details and Frank is keeping mum about the whole thing.

The 16-term congressman isn't seeking re-election this year, but if the wedding takes place before he leaves the house, it would be the first same-sex marriage of a sitting member of Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, thanks very, very much.

Some Republicans wanted to see another Bush in this, the 2012 presidential contest. We're talking about the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He has a warning for the frontrunners in tonight's debate here in Jacksonville.

Our own John King spoke with him and John is standing by to give us a little preview of the interview.

Also chilling video made by self-confessed shooter who first pointed his camera and his gun at a U.S. Marine Corps Museum and other military targets near the nation's capitol.


BLITZER: He's a perennial Republican favorite, still very popular here. We're talking about former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He disappointed many people in his party by not running for president this year.

But he's watching the race very closely, even has some advice for Newt Gingrich tonight. He spoke with our own John King, the host of "JOHN KING USA."


JOHN KING, HOST, CNN'S "JOHN KING USA": Let's start with tonight's big debate. We have pretty much a dead heat here, slight advantage Romney.

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 special 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. I just hope that both Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich would stay away from that.


BLITZER: John King is here with us. I know you're going to have the full interview later on your show, but what else did he say? Because, you know, a lot of Republicans out there are still dreaming even at this late moment that he could jump in.

KING: He said he's not going to jump in this time. He doesn't think even if President Obama wins that he would run next time, although he said he wouldn't say never. He said he don't think about that down the road. You heard his advice to Speaker Gingrich there essentially to turn it down, tone it down.

And I'm not expecting it tonight if you listen to what Speaker Gingrich said on the trail today. I also asked about Governor Romney, and he said, Governor Romney needs to show more of his heart, to connect with people.

He said that's his problem. That Gingrich has connected, the governor sometimes thinks too hot. Governor Romney thinks sometimes is too cold. So that was interesting.

And also he wrote an essay in the "Washington Post" today about an issue he cares about personally. He says the Republican Party is at risk of becoming irrelevant here in Florida and nationally if it doesn't rebuild relations with the Latino community.

His brother, George W. Bush got 41 percent in 2004 when he won re-election. John McCain got 31 percent nationally among the Latino votes. Jeb Bush says essentially the Republican Party will die if it becomes in his words, and he said this -- but a party of old white guys.

BLITZER: It was a very thoughtful article, the op-ed piece he wrote in the "Washington Post." He had four specific recommendations. He would like to see what is called the comprehensive immigration reform.

But a lot of Republicans don't want to necessarily see what John McCain, Ted Kennedy, his brother, President Bush, they tried to do it and didn't get very far.

KING: And he understands the politics of the moment. But he warns and look, the polling supports his case on this one whether you agree with him on specific policy prescriptions or not if you keep talking about border security and deportations.

If you keep talking about things like that and he says you need to have a more welcoming message on economics, on immigration. He says the language even on the subject he agrees with, the language is to off-putting, that it drives people away.

He says if you simply look at the demographics here in this state and across the country, it's a problem today for the Republicans, and it would get only worse 5, 10, 15 years down the road unless they fix it.

He says he believes that more time they spend in a state like this, the more they will get it from the Latino votes, but we'll see.

BLITZER: You know, getting back to his desire for a cooling of some of the rhetoric, it's easy to say that from the outside, but if you're a candidate and you're being hammered and you don't hammer back, you're going to lose.

KING: And look, Jeb Bush has been in many a campaign here in the state of Florida, primaries back in the old days and in general elections.

He understands that -- he's sort of torn at the moment, because he does understand the moment, a very contested primary, a very close race here. He understands that you have to fight fire with fire.

And he says the sparks actually helped generate interest. He is taking to the general elections that he says, sure Republicans might like the red meat, but his worries is that independents voters might say I don't like that and turn away.

And make it easier for President Obama -- you know this, Wolf. We're going to be back in this state, the great debate on this campus tonight. You'll have the great honor of moderating it. We'll be back between now and November because Florida, as always, will be huge.

BLITZER: Florida is a big state, important state, nice campus we have here.

KING: Such friendly people. It's a beautiful campus.

BLITZER: Architecture great, 16,000 students.

KING: An enthusiastic group, right? You know about the swoop?

BLITZER: Thanks very much. John is going to warm up the crowd later.

Your e-mail and Jack Cafferty coming up, "The Cafferty File". Also, a bankruptcy and another possible stimulus embarrassment. Stand by for that.

Coming up in our next hour, chilling video of shootings linked to the military. Prosecutors said the gunman himself taped it.


BLITZER: Back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour -- is it good or bad that Newt Gingrich makes establishment Republicans nervous? And he does, you know.

Chris writes, "The establishment Republicans can best be characterized as a bunch of abstinent, mean spirited, grumpy old men. They want their way no matter that it may destroy the country. Newt scares them and he should. He won in South Carolina on the strength of hi debate performance and on the notion he tells the voters what he believes. Not count in some intellectual problem."

Bill writes, "It's all bad, and I'm not sure which one make me more nervous, President Gingrich, President Romney or President Obama. None in my opinion is cause for much celebration."

Vernal writes on Facebook, "Gingrich is an establishment Republican no matter how much will he has pulled over everyone's eyes."

Terry in Virginia, "Could Newt possibly be a bigger disaster than W? I hope Newt gives the GOP heartburn and many sleepless nights just like they've done to many of us who struggled day to day in this horrible economy."

Joe writes, "I'm a conservative and love it that Gingrich is scaring establishment Republicans. We need somebody to stir things up and put forth bold ideas to challenge those who have been in Washington too long. That includes most of Congress."

Jim in Denver, "Jack, I don't care, I vote Democrat, but it is funny to see him causing such havoc in the GOP." And Tom writes this, "Def-con 5? Those missiles have left the silos. You'll be able to use the Republican establishment mushroom cloud to pop your popcorn during the next debate. It's the 666th debate. Republican rapture and its benefit for real Americans, isn't it?"

If you want more about this, to go my blog, file or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thank you.

We're just learning that another so-called green company, which received millions of government stimulus dollars has filed for bankruptcy. CNN's Lisa Sylvester is working the story for us. So, Lisa, what are you finding out?

SYLVESTER: Wolf, this is a story that we actually fired reported on last October when we took a look at this company. We called it the next Solyndra and at that time, we were looking at companies that had received large amounts of government money and were running into problems from competition overseas.

And sure enough, "Enter One," an Indiana manufacturer that makes advance batteries for electric cars has filed for bankruptcy protection. The company received $118 million in stimulus money.

This is taxpayer money. It was part of a broader push to move the country to a goal of 1 million electric cars by 2014. Vice President Joe Biden visited the company last year when he touted this as the new industry that was going to bring back jobs. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We're not just going to have to create new jobs, which you've seen evidence of right here. We have to create whole new industries for the 21st Century.


SYLVESTER: Now this story might sound a bit like Solyndra, that's the California solar panel company that received half a billion dollar loan guarantee from the federal government only to file for bankruptcy.

The Obama administration has said again and again, some clean tech companies are going to succeed and some like Solyndra will failed, and the Obama administration is also pointing out that in the case of "Enter One."

That it wasn't just Democratic lawmakers supporting "Enter One," but there were also many key Republicans they also sent letters to the administration on its behalf -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to say, Lisa, they probably expect more failures in the coming months. Is that right?

SYLVESTER: It is. There is a certainly reality here that there's global competition when it comes to things like solar panels or these electric batteries. That's one of the things we're going to have to keep a real close eye on, but the administration said if you want to move forward, if you want to get to that new technology and that new growth, you're going to have to expect that they're going to be some failures that are going to be built in there. But they also will say that there are a lot of success stories as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Lisa. Thanks very much.