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JOHN KING, USA

Florida Votes; How Long Will GOP Race Last?; Romney Outspending Gingrich in Florida Ads

Aired January 31, 2012 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: We're watching the final primary votes being cast in Florida on this special edition of JOHN KING, USA.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's another big night in the Republican race and anything could still happen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight: a Republican free-for-all on the biggest battleground yet.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The message we should give Mitt Romney is, we aren't that stupid and you aren't that clever.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We could see an October surprise a day from Newt Gingrich.

ANNOUNCER: After three contests and three different winners, who will claim the next victory?

ROMNEY: This race is getting to be even morning interesting.

ANNOUNCER: It's Florida's choice.

Newt Gingrich clawed his way back to the top in South Carolina.

GINGRICH: Governor Romney has an enormous amount of money, but we have an enormous number of people.

ANNOUNCER: Mitt Romney needs to drag him down.

ROMNEY: He's gone from pillar to post, almost like a pinball machine, which is highly erratic.

ANNOUNCER: It's a two-man grudge match in a four-man race.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's a lot of folks who talk tough. What makes you tough is what is at your core.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No way they're going to stop the momentum that we have started.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ANNOUNCER: Who will return to Florida this summer as the Republican nominee?

GINGRICH: I will go all the way to the convention. I expect to win the nomination.

SANTORUM: We're going to be in this race for a long time.

ANNOUNCER: Forget everything you thought you knew about the presidential field.

PAUL: This is the beginning of a long, hard slog.

ROMNEY: We're going to take back the White House. We're going to take back our country.

ANNOUNCER: The nomination is up for grabs. The conventional wisdom is out the window. And Florida will change the game again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Hello from the CNN Election Center. I'm John King.

Most of the polling places across Florida close about one hour from now.

BLITZER: We have the most crews in position across the state including our correspondents at the candidates' headquarters and as always Anderson Cooper is here as well.

KING: We have brand-new exit poll information just in.

We can show you now but we can't tell you who the people of Florida are voting for but we can tell you about the Florida electorate tonight. If you watch this, this is the first time we have a much more diverse electorate, a big Latino population -- 15 percent of those voting in the Republican primary today in the state of Florida are Latino, 82 percent white, a very small only one percentage are African-Americans.

If you look down here at the breakdown by gender, 52 percent of the electorate today again in the big Republican Florida primary men, 48 percent are women. We come across here, look at ideology. This is very important. South Carolina was our last contest. A much more conservative electorate there. In Florida, 37 percent, the largest group describe themselves as somewhat conservative -- 34 percent of our voters today describe themselves as very conservative and 30 percent describe themselves as moderate to liberal.

That's important, a distinction from South Carolina. The Tea Party movement was huge in Florida in 2010, big today as well -- 66 percent of those voting in this presidential primary describe themselves as Tea Party supporters -- 22 percent are neutral. Only 8 percent of the voters today oppose the Tea Party.

Let's move on. This is very important here, evangelical born-again Christians, a big constituency in Iowa and a big constituency in South Carolina, a smaller constituency in Florida, 39 percent describe themselves as white born-again evangelicals. Six in 10 voters today say they don't fit that description there.

Again if you look at the most important candidate quality, when Republicans went to the polls today we asked them what is the most important candidate quality, and 45 percent, the largest group by far, said can defeat President Obama. Florida of course will be a huge battleground state in November, as it always is -- 45 percent of Republicans today say quality number one, can they win the general election, can they defeat Barack Obama? -- 13 percent want a true conservative.

Strong moral character was the number one quality for 17 percent. The right experience -- 20 percent of Republicans said the right experience was what mattered most to them. Let's take a little bit more about the electorate. Were the debates a factor in your vote? -- 86 percent of Republicans today said, yes, debates were a factor. How big a factor?

Let's dig a little deeper here. An important factor, 50 percent. The most important factor, 17 percent. So 67 percent say important or most important. Minor factor, 19 percent -- 10 percent say the debates were not a factor at all.

Let's take one more quick look here -- campaign ads, were they important to your vote? This is interesting. So much money spent on campaign ads. A lot of complaints from Speaker Gingrich about the campaign ads -- 34 percent say a minor factor, 24 percent say not a factor at all, so a majority there, 58 percent, say minor or not at all when it came to all the millions spent on campaign ads.

Only 15 percent said it was the most important factor. One last footnote, who ran the most unfair campaign? If you listened in recent days, Speaker Gingrich was complaining about the negative ads. He said Mitt Romney was being dishonest. But the voters did not see it that way, at least not by a large margin -- 37 percent said Governor Romney ran the most unfair campaign -- 34 percent said that about Speaker Gingrich. Only a tiny percentage of voters said that about Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thanks very much.

Let's over to the Romney and Gingrich campaigns right now, and Candy Crowley is at the Romney headquarters. Jim Acosta is over at the Gingrich campaign headquarters.

Candy, what are our Romney campaign advisers expecting for tonight?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, they will tell you, gee, a 6 or 7 percent margin. They're clearly expecting a victory.

I have to tell you out in the hallway there are T-shirts with Florida on them that say Florida believes, and believe in America is Mitt Romney's slogan. So they are looking for a victory tonight. They say five or six points, but you have seen the polls and they have seen the polls. A double-digit victory would be great. But I have to tell you they are also looking at the breadth of a win should they get it. And that is particularly how do they do among women and how do they do among those very conservative voters that John is talking about, two key things for them as they watch tonight for a variety of reasons.

And even though we are seeing that a lot of people say what was on the air here in terms of advertising didn't really affect their vote, I can also tell you just from what Mitt Romney is saying that he intends to continue to be not on the defense, but on the offense. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you're attacked, I'm not just going to sit back. I'm going to fight back, and fight back hard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So expect more of the same going on. This still is a heated battle. Both these men obviously going on after this, along with Santorum and Paul -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will be checking back with you throughout the night, Candy. Thanks very much.

Jim Acosta is over at Newt Gingrich headquarters.

Jim, you had a chance to chat a bit with Newt Gingrich today. Where does he see this race moving after tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Newt Gingrich likes to remind reporters that he's been dead before in this campaign twice. I had a chance to catch up with the former speaker out on the campaign trail earlier today.

And I asked him is there still a chance for you to become the Republican nominee after what might be a pretty big beating down here in Florida? And he said, of course. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Mr. Speaker, do you still see a path to the nomination after Florida?

GINGRICH: Of course.

ACOSTA: How do you see that happening?

GINGRICH: Unify the conservatives. Romney is not going to get anywhere near a majority here. You unify the conservatives, you win the delegates and you have the nomination.

(CROSSTALK)

ACOSTA: Did you let your guard down to Mitt Romney, would you say? GINGRICH: No, I would say that when you are outspent 5-1 with ads that are dishonest, that it's a challenge.

ACOSTA: And are you saying he's run a dishonest campaign, sir?

GINGRICH: Well, that's what "The Wall Street Journal" and "The National Review" said.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: As for that onslaught of negative ads, the former speaker does have some numbers to back him up. The folks over at Kantar, CMAG, have run an analysis of the ads run down here in Florida in the last week -- just 0.1 percent of the ads here in Florida in the last week have been pro-Romney. Nearly 70 percent have been anti-Gingrich.

Those are tough numbers to beat, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very tough numbers. I see they're getting ready for the former speaker to deliver a speech where you are. We will check back with you. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Anderson Cooper is with us every step of the way -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's right.

And I'm here with chief political analyst Gloria Borger and senior political analyst David Gergen.

Expectations for tonight, what are you all watching for?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm really watching to see whether Romney can win an election with the support of the most conservative voters and the Tea Party, because even though we saw him win in New Hampshire, it was kind of his backyard. And we need to see whether he can really rally the conservative base of the party, the Tea Partiers who have been so skeptical about him in the past.

COOPER: How much has he been reaching out to them this time?

BORGER: He has been reaching out. He's been calling them on the telephone. He's been really soliciting them, which he hasn't actually done in the past.

Of course, Newt Gingrich's entire candidacy is premised upon being the not-Romney, the most conservative, the heir to the Reagan legacy. So it will be interesting to see if Romney can actually get those conservatives on board.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: We introduced the show tonight by saying the nomination's up for grabs. To me the big question tonight is, will Romney grab it tonight?

If he wins decisively, I think he will be much closer to that goal, if it's over 10 points, if it's double digits. This is the first major state that is a major battleground state in the general election. And a person who can win here and among Republicans is a more formidable candidate for the Republican Party.

COOPER: And the next couple of states are also probably in Romney's favor.

GERGEN: Exactly right. I think it's a major night to just test how broad, how deep is Romney's support.

I was also surprised, Anderson, and we have been talking all week about this avalanche of negative ads. But voters seem to think the debates were more important to them in making up their minds than the ads. And that's not good news for Newt Gingrich, who had two lackluster debates here.

COOPER: Also, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, very popular among Republicans in that state, talked about the results tonight. Let's show what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I think the winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party, and rightfully so. Florida is, as you said, is a mini America. Virtually every issue we want them to be conversant on and convincing on is an issue they have had to confront here in Florida.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Is that a tacit endorsement of Mitt Romney, assuming he wins?

BORGER: Well, he's walked right up to the line, but he decided not to endorse.

I think what he's saying is accurate about the state, which is that not only is it a battleground, but if you can win in Florida, you're likely to be the one winning the nomination. I mean, the Gingrich campaign if they don't win in Florida tonight, they're going to say only 5 percent of the delegates have been picked. It's a long slog. And we can go -- we can go all the way to the convention, which may be true.

But the question is can they raise the money if they don't win tonight and will they have the momentum that Mitt Romney would be able to claim?

COOPER: And John King, as you mentioned earlier, this is the most diverse state we have yet to see a primary in.

KING: It is, Anderson, 15 percent of the electorate Latinos tonight, more moderate voters that.

We are looking through this early election poll information now. We're going to take a look at the first snapshot of who's voting today and why and how issue number one, the economy, figures in.

And we all know Florida, remember the hanging chad, has a history of ballot problems. We're going behind the scenes with our exclusive ballot cams to watch the voting.

Later, the counting in real time.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back to the CNN Election Center.

You can see now about 45 minutes away and the first polls close in Florida at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Up in the Florida Panhandle, they close at 8:00. I will show you just what we're talking about. You see the great diverse state of Florida, 50 delegates at stake tonight.

It is up here the polls are open a little bit later so we need to wait. But the state's the most diverse state. You have the Miami area and 15 percent of those voting tonight are Latinos. We already know that. Military communities up in Jacksonville. Retirees, more moderate independents, 15 percent Latinos.

Let's take a look at what we know about this electorate tonight here as we go through. Obviously, there's near 10 percent unemployment in the state of Florida. So it is no surprise the number one issue to those voting in today's Florida Republican presidential primary by far the economy -- 62 percent say the economy -- 24 percent say the budget deficit -- 6 percent say abortion is the most important issue. Only 3 percent say illegal immigration.

So this in a state with 9 percent unemployment, the economy is driving the debate. Let's take a closer look at this. As these Republicans went to the polls we asked them what's your family's financial situation? Economy issue number one, 58 percent, nearly six in 10 say they're holding steady -- 29 percent, nearly three in 10, say they're falling behind, and only 13 percent are optimistic and say their family finances are getting ahead.

Perhaps no surprise this is another major problem. Foreclosures, the housing issue in Florida has been a problem throughout -- 50 percent of the voters today say foreclosures in their community are a major problem, and 32 percent say a minor problem, and 15 percent say not a problem at all.

Let's walk back over this way and I will show you why the economy is such a big issue, not only in this primary, but as you go forward. If you come through the demographics here and you look at the current unemployment right here, the darker the area the higher the unemployment the rates. You see these dark spots here and it's 9.9 percent statewide.

Want to go back in time to show you why Republicans think this is a battleground come November. This is when President Obama took office. You see the shade of green, it's a fairly dark state. Watch this as we come forward here. One of the reasons Republicans think they can get into the state, Wolf, and do very well and why this primary is so important, and we already saw that 45 percent of voters today say their number one test, can their candidate, can the Republican candidate they pick today beat Barack Obama in November. This is why. The economy has been punished there. And Florida Republicans, Wolf, think this is a state they can take back come November.

BLITZER: That's a good point, John, excellent point.

I want to go inside some of the voting polls, polling places right now to see the voting as it's happening with our ballot cameras.

John Zarrella is joining us from Lithia, Florida. Shannon Travis is joining us in Panama City Beach.

Shannon, you just met two very interesting voters. What did they say to you?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Absolutely, Wolf.

Two voters just moments ago who were walking out of this precinct, Precinct 8 here in Panama City Beach, one of them was a 72-year-old man who said he's lived in the area for 10 years. I asked him, who did you vote for, and he said Ron Paul. You know, Wolf, that's interesting because Ron Paul hasn't been actively competing in Florida, certainly not in this area, this heavily Republican area.

I asked him if he thought that his vote would make an impact, have an impact seeing as though Dr. Paul is not campaigning here. He said yes, that it's a vote for smaller government, ending the Fed and liberty.

And the other person you mentioned that was also interesting was a woman. Her name was Jenny Thoms (ph), a mother. She had her son. She said going into this polling location, she couldn't make up her mind who to actually vote for. So her 8-year-old son, Evan Wood (ph), actually pointed to one of the names and the name was Mitt Romney. So, hopefully, that's one vote for Mitt Romney. Hopefully, some of Mitt Romney's other supporters are coming here with a little bit more firmer support -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Shannon, we will get back to you. Thanks very much.

John Zarrella is in the largest precinct in Hillsborough County, and that's where Tampa is.

What's the scene like over there, John? I don't know if you can hear me, John. If you can't hear me, let me repeat the question.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: ... registered Republicans here in Lithia, and that's just south of the Tampa area.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right, John.

(CROSSTALK) ZARRELLA: That's correct. It's Hillsborough County. And this is the largest Republican precinct, Precinct 701, in Hillsborough County, 3,800 registered Republicans here.

When we talked to the supervisor -- OK. When we talked to the supervisor of elections, he was telling us they expected a very good turnout today. And, in fact, they had about 800 people as of 4:30 vote here, but a big turnout now tonight here, a lot of people coming in at the last -- in the last hour, Wolf.

So they do hope that they can get to about 1,200 people. Then when you factor in all of the absentee ballots and you factor in the early voting, countywide, they're expecting perhaps 40 percent of the 232,000 registered Republicans to actually have cast ballots in this primary.

When we talked to a lot of the people here, Wolf, one of the things that they were telling me was, many of them said, you know what? We came with one idea of who we were going to vote for. But at the end of the day, we wanted to vote for the safe candidate and the candidate that we felt was more equipped to beat Barack Obama at the end of the day, not necessarily their first choice, but the person they thought would have the most likely impact in the general election, the best chance of beating Barack Obama -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Electability a key issue.

John Zarrella on the scene for us, as he always is, in Florida.

Let's go back to John.

KING: Wolf, as you know, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in Florida, but Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are not waiting around in Florida for the results tonight. Our correspondents are waiting with them in the next battleground. That's Nevada.

And we're counting down to top of the hour now, where most polling places close and the first votes will start to come in.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Most of the polls will close at the top of the hour in Florida, 7:00 p.m. Eastern. All of them will close at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

At that point, we will be able to release final exit poll numbers, also maybe, maybe project a winner. We're standing by for that.

Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have essentially given up on Florida. They're in Nevada tonight looking ahead to the caucuses this coming Saturday.

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

First, Joe, to you. Why isn't Ron Paul in Florida? JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Ah. Well, he just couldn't compete in Florida, quite frankly. The advertising costs too much. It's a winner-take-all state, as you know. All of the delegates go to whoever the winner is.

The Ron Paul campaign looked at it and just saw themselves putting a whole bunch of money into Florida and frankly not getting anything out of it, figured they'd come out here to places like Colorado, Nevada, and try to work it, particularly in Nevada, where it's a caucus state and Ron Paul can use some of his organizing skill to try to get at least a proportion of the delegates for the Republican National Convention, as opposed to a winner-take-all situation like in Florida, Wolf.

BLITZER: How confident are they in Nevada?

JOHNS: You know, Nevada is very tricky for the Ron Paul campaign. Number one, there are a lot of Mormons out here. And four years ago, Mitt Romney got something like 95 percent of that vote. He actually won the Nevada caucuses by 51 percent. So it's a risk for Ron Paul.

But they figure they might as well try to get some delegates out here as opposed to the situation in other states where they could end up with nothing at all and just spend a lot of money.

BLITZER: Stand by for that. We will get back to you, Joe.

We will be watching what's going on where you are at Ron Paul headquarters.

Let's go to Dana Bash. She's over at Rick Santorum headquarters, at least on this night in Las Vegas.

Dana, what do we expect from the Santorum folks tonight?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we expect the senator to come here. In fact, we're going to be able to talk to him in a short time when he gets here.

But I just want to give you a little tour of where we are. We are at the actual headquarters for Rick Santorum's campaign here in Nevada. Wolf, they signed the lease on this place four days ago. They turned the lights on three days ago. They only have two paid staffers in this entire state.

And now we do have -- you see a couple of volunteers here making calls, telling people to come here to listen to the senator tonight but also to try to start giving them information about where to go for the caucuses, so that they can vote for Rick Santorum.

You know, Wolf, because you interviewed the senator about 10 days ago in South Carolina, he was making the case that he was going to be in Florida, but that changed pretty quickly after he realized much like Ron Paul he wasn't going to be able to compete for the 50 delegates because it's winner-take-all.

So they figure that this is the best place for him to get the best bang for his buck.

BLITZER: Well, speak about buck, does he have bucks? Does he have enough campaign money to effectively compete in Nevada and some of these other states?

BASH: Well, his campaign actually told us today that he has $1.2 million cash on hand. That's not bad considering the fact that he certainly has not been known to do much in any way other than a shoestring, which as you can see here in this headquarters.

He actually raised $4.2 million in January alone. So they feel like they're in pretty good shape. They have already bought some advertising time here in Nevada and in Colorado. They're out with two new ads. One of them is pretty tough against his opponents. So they insist that they are doing pretty well in fund-raising to keep them going for the long haul, which just like Ron Paul, he says he is not giving up.

BLITZER: Like the other candidates, he has a super PAC supporting him as well. We will see how much money they are willing to put up in this battle.

Dana, we will check with you throughout the evening, obviously.

Let's go back to Anderson right now -- Anderson.

COOPER: Wolf, thanks very much.

Let's check in with all our Democratic and Republican strategists and CNN contributors.

Alex Castellanos, is anybody going to drop out tonight?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Maybe the voters will give up.

(LAUGHTER)

CASTELLANOS: But, no, none of the candidates, it appears. They're going to go on.

Look, this campaign in some ways may be over tonight, but it may not end tonight. Mitt Romney if he wins Florida he will pick up money, he will pick up momentum. Newt Gingrich has damaged himself if he does not win this evening. But there's no reason they can't go on through February. Very little happens in February. They can live off the land.

The dynamic changes from winning to stopping Mitt Romney.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Let me differ with a part of that.

There's no reason anybody should drop out. March is the big month. And there's a lot that happens in February actually. There are seven states that go to the polls. Six of them actually have delegates at stake. Mitt Romney did phenomenally well in five of those seven four years ago. He won five of those seven. So it will be a strong month for Romney.

But if you're Santorum or if you're Newt Gingrich, you look at the national polls showing that Romney was down in three of the big national polls to Newt Gingrich. This race really accelerates into March. That's going to be the big month. No reason for anybody to drop out.

COOPER: When you say no reason to drop out, do you think they're doing damage though to Mitt Romney long term?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, when you look at how Mitt Romney was losing in three national surveys to Newt Gingrich this week, Mitt Romney has yet to secure a big strong foundation underneath him.

This race remains largely what it was last August, Anderson, volatile. That's the key word still.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Why drop out when you can wait and go to Texas, hang out with Paul Begala and get 155 delegate votes?

Less than 10 percent of the delegates have been selected. February is a weak month in terms of picking up delegates. With the new rules on the Republican side that often gives you a big bonus if you win over 50 percent and you get a little proportionality if you win less than 50 percent, there's no reason for any of the candidates to drop out.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: So, you're saying, like Alex, like Jeremiah Johnson, they can live off the land?

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: Well, I have known some candidates that's -- that's been able to live off the land and pick up a little bit of money along the way.

We need to raise a little money right now for Rick Santorum, I guess. But the truth of the matter is, is that you have Super Tuesday on March 6. You have big states like New York and California still down the road.

If Mitt Romney can buy his opponents out of the race, perhaps he can get to 1,144. That's the number of delegates need to win. But otherwise, it's -- I think it's going to be a lot more mayhem before we get to a real winner.

BEGALA: Oh, yes. It's so volatile. We've had at least seven front runners and we're only on the third...

COOPER: Is there a question how Mitt Romney can do in other southern states besides Florida?

BEGALA: I think -- let's see how he does today in Florida, particularly in the Panhandle. You know, I mean, Florida is (UNINTELLIGIBLE). These guys know better than I do, but Republicans even, you get in that Panhandle, it is -- it is basically Alabama. Miami is the sixth borough of New York City. So I'm much more interested in how Mitt Romney runs in that part, the Panhandle.

CASTELLANOS: As strong a theater as this all is, though, let's not discount the power of winning. Winning changes things. And if somebody wins tonight, Mitt Romney, if he wins big, then that does change national polls. That does -- people start looking at him, well, money follows victory.

KING: It's also Gloria -- it's not just tonight if he wins, it's Nevada. I mean, he's set up for the next couple of states in a very good position.

BORGER: Sure. Sure he is. But don't forget Newt Gingrich here. He is one mad, angry candidate. He loves a fight. He's an insurgent. And he lives off of the skirmishes kind of.

Now Newt Gingrich's problem is not only that the next couple of states favor Mitt Romney but also that he doesn't have a debate for a few weeks. And that's where he kind of tends to build his momentum. So that's going to be a little bit of a dry spell for him.

But don't count out what motivates Newt Gingrich. I think his problem now is that he has to stop attacking Romney personally and start turning this into a conservative crusade and try and get conservatives to rally around him. Because now this is about something larger than Newt Gingrich himself, which he hasn't done.

FLEISCHER: The other factor here is if Newt and Rick Santorum stay in because they think they can beat Mitt Romney. It helps Mitt Romney. Because as long as it's not a one-on-one race Mitt Romney has a stronger chance. So his perceived weaknesses actually going to stretch this thing out in a way that helps Mitt Romney, too. This is the Rubik's Cube of this race.

BEGALA: Santorum's saying it helps Mitt Romney. In fact, Santorum has got a new ad in Nevada, I just learned. It's been publicly released, that attacks not Mitt Romney but attacks Newt Gingrich. So Santorum helps Romney stay. Gingrich does not. Gingrich doesn't live off the land. He lives off vile and speed and Red Bull. I mean, he just lives off hate.

And the story for tonight is to see how Gingrich conducts himself. He closed out this campaign in Florida wonderfully, in my eyes. He called his opponent, Governor Romney, breathlessly dishonest, despicable. He's coming unglued with these personal attacks. And will he be able to run on those fumes or will he kind of clean himself up?

COOPER: When you say he lives off speed, you mean moving fast?

BEGALA: I mean moving fast and getting revved up. I don't mean that literally.

GERGEN: I want to come back to this point, though, that I do believe, as Alex said, that if Romney wins big tonight, he puts that cloak of inevitability back on. He becomes a much, much more likely nominee.

And the Romney people, I think, are going to want to close this thing down. I talked to a somewhat major figure in the Romney campaign today. He said, "We're going to try to persuade him not to do more debates. We've had uneven results with that." We'll have to wait and see what happens.

But you've got to think about it from the Romney point of view and from the point of view of a lot of established Republicans. The longer this goes on, Romney may continue to beat these guys, but I think he weakens against President Obama. During the process in the last few weeks, his negatives among independents have gone way up, and he's now running in the national polls. He's running six to eight points behind President Obama.

BORGER: In the last couple of months his negatives among independents have risen 20 points. Twenty points.

COOPER: We've got to -- let's go back to John -- John.

KING: Glad you cleared up that speed thing with Begala. I wasn't sure where that was going.

Mitt Romney suggests one reason he lost in South Carolina was because he was outspending the TV ad more. We're going to check those numbers for you, put them to the truth test. Also, much more exit poll information to share with you. Some fascinating comparisons, including this question. Compare South Carolina to Florida on when did the voters make up their minds? That's just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back to the CNN Election Center. As you can see right here, just 22 minutes until most of the polls close in Florida. Most close at the top of the hour. Some polling places in the Panhandle are open until 8 p.m. So we have to be careful as we tell you about our exit polls tonight. The first results will start coming in in just 20 minutes.

Florida the biggest state, the most diverse state so far; the most expensive state, as well. Erin Burnett is here. And Erin, 9 or 10 media markets. Television ads making a huge impact. A lot of complaints from Speaker Gingrich. Break down the numbers.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: All right. And a lot of these are negative. This is our battleground Florida, and as you can see, we can look at Florida ads.

So far 93 percent of the ads that have aired in Florida have been negative.

KING: Ouch.

BURNETT: Which I guess doesn't really surprise you, given what we've heard, but it's still shocking. So who has spent all the money? Well, if you look here at the campaign, obviously you can see this is just the candidates' campaigns themselves. Mitt Romney, $5.25 million. Newt Gingrich only $716,000. All right. That's a big difference, right?

Now add in their super PACs, Restore our Future for Mitt Romney, Winning Our Future for Gingrich, and...

KING: Whoa.

BURNETT: ... it becomes even more dramatic. So you see the split here. And a lot of the tracking things that we look at, we often talk about CMAG, which tracks ad spending; only tracks broadcast ad spending. A lot of people who care a lot about politics are watching local channels. They're watching cable. And those numbers aren't even counted. So the numbers get even bigger and bigger and bigger.

But it has been Mitt Romney's state in terms of spending and in terms of negativity plenty to go around.

Also, when you look at Florida, John, very interesting to see that we've seen more than $2 million spent by Democratic groups. Unions, Democratic National Committee and also President Barack Obama's re- election super PAC have all spent money in Florida against the Republicans.

KING: So the Democrats involved already. But that is mind-numbing. Thirteen point three million to 2.4 million. That is a thumping. We know Romney was ahead in the polls. There's certainly one reason why right there, Anderson. And if you're going to compete in Florida now or Florida voters about to get a little break, a little respite from all these. Negative ads, 93 percent?

BURNETT: Ninety-three percent. But you know, they get a respite until September and October.

COOPER: Then it all starts again. Let's check in with Erick Erickson and Roland Martin who are in Miami in South Beach yet again at a bar. I don't know how they keep wrangling these assignments. Erick Erickson, editor in chief of RedState.com, is this a story just of Newt Gingrich being outspent in Florida? What else went wrong for him in this state?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, a lot went wrong. But I think the advertising has more to do with him than a lot of people want to credit. South Carolina was the first race, even including the 2008 races, where the non-Romney candidates were at parity with Mitt Romney.

This is -- I mean, 15 to 3, 15 to 1? You can't keep up with that. Florida is a huge media market. Advertising in a state like Florida is very necessary. You can't go door-to-door all over the state. If you can't even come close to parity, and that's not close at all, there's no way you can win.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But also, Anderson, we also have to own up to something. And that is Mitt Romney had a strong infrastructure in this state. Newt Gingrich did not have a lot of money early on, so it's not like he had lots of boots on the ground. And the bottom line is, if you don't have a campaign team on the ground, putting out flyers, going door-to-door, getting volunteers, you're not going to compete. You take that with no money, guess what? Expect a blowout.

KING: What are you going to be looking for in terms of voter turnout tonight, Erick?

ERICKSON: You know, I want to see -- I suspect this is going to be the first race where women decisively vote against Newt Gingrich. Because of the stories about Marianne Gingrich broke too soon for the South Carolina election. We had that huge spike in polling for Newt Gingrich after South Carolina. And then it all went away. I think the voter realization had something to do with it.

I'm very, very interested in where evangelicals in the Panhandle go. Do they divide up evenly? Do they go towards one candidate? Do they split? I'm interested in that.

I'm also interested to see if Newt plus Santorum beat Mitt Romney. I don't think that's going to happen tonight. And it will be a very unusual, interesting situation since Florida really is more diverse and more of a general election state even within the Republican primary than some of the states coming up on Super Tuesday.

MARTIN: Anderson, the biggest thing I'm looking for, how does home foreclosures play when it comes to how folks voted? Because that is going to be a liability for President Obama come the general election. His home foreclosure programs have not been successful. They have not been good. And so if Mitt Romney has a chance to really solidify this state, if he wins the nomination, that's going to be a critical issue come November.

ERICKSON: Yes, Anderson, one last point here. I got into Florida this morning, and listening just to regular radio, constantly heard a Gingrich super PAC ad. It was nothing but attacking Mitt Romney on abortion, which to me I realize the campaign and the super PAC can't coordinate, but you're running in Florida and you're attacking Mitt Romney in south Florida on abortion? I think Newt Gingrich's super PAC needs to rethink how it's spending his money.

MARTIN: And Newt might want to rethink his message. He's been all over the place for the past week. And one thing, seriously: stop complaining about the media. You look ridiculous.

ERICKSON: We're going to the moon.

MARTIN: Right. He's gone to the moon. Jackie Gleason's hometown.

COOPER: We've got -- we're going to be checking in with you guys throughout the evening. You're going to have a fun time with that crowd behind you, I predict. Enjoy.

MARTIN: Absolutely. COOPER: John, I'm glad I'm here.

KING: We've got to talk to the bosses about the bar assignments here. I'm not quite sure how this works out. But Erick and Roland win again.

As you can see from the clock here, most of the polls in Florida close at the top of the hour, 16 minutes away. We're standing by. It will be just moments after that the first raw votes come in.

And Florida big for Republicans tonight. Also a make or break. Could it be Romney versus Obama? It will be Republican versus Obama matchup this fall. We'll break it down.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Inside 13 minutes at the top of the hour, that's when this map will start to fill in. The polls in most of Florida close at the top of the hour, 12 minutes, 45 seconds away. Up here in the Panhandle they close at 8 p.m. But Florida reports some results quickly. Magic Wall will begin to fill in with the big results in our Republican presidential primary.

Let's take a closer look at more of our exit poll today, including a fascinating comparison. Remember, I'm going to show you first: this is South Carolina. This was our last contest. When did people decide to vote? South Carolina Republicans, 38 percent decided just in the last few days before their election. Seventeen percent of South Carolina Republicans decided on election day. Add that up right there. Fifty-five percent decided in the last few days or in the day of the election. Remember that. Fifty-five percent.

Now let's look at Florida. Very, very different. Eighteen percent in the last few days; just 9 percent on the day of the election. Twenty- seven percent. About half deciding late in Florida as opposed to South Carolina.

Look at this. Forty-two percent in Florida decided before this month. Not even this month. Because you had absentee and early voting in Florida. It's a much more important dynamic. That can be a big factor in what plays out tonight.

Let's take a little bit closer again. You heard this from John Zarrella earlier. Voters sometimes changing their mind as they went into the polling place. Their No. 1 issue: can their candidate defeat Barack Obama in the fall?

Florida will be among the biggest fall battlegrounds. It always is. President Obama carried it with only 51 percent of the vote.

Forty-five percent of Republican voters today say that is the most important quality, beating Barack Obama.

One more we want to show you here. Are you satisfied with the Republican candidate. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans say yes, but in the fourth contest, this is interesting and this will be a talking point in the days ahead. Four in 10 Republicans today, Anderson, say no, we'd like some other candidates.

COOPER: And Alex Castellanos, what does that tell you?

CASTELLANOS: The easiest thing to do in politics is to disqualify your opponent, negative ads. The hardest thing to do is be Moses. And that's really the job of a political leader, to say, "Follow me. The promised land is over here. Lift your eyes over the horizon. I'll take you there."

Mitt Romney hasn't quite found a way yet to do that, even though he's won tactically maybe in Florida. If he -- if these polls we've been seeing the last week, if he wins Florida he's found a way to disqualify his opponent. But he has not found a way to win the heart of the Republican Party yet.

Now, this does change. Victory changes everything. All of a sudden, you get prettier and sexier, and everybody wants to date the girl that just, you know, won the beauty contest.

FLEISCHER: And it's not only that you get prettier and sexier, all which is the case. But in this year especially, the unifying force is going to be opposition to Barack Obama and the heartfelt Republican desire to win back the White House. The power of President Obama to unite what really has been a relatively dissatisfied Republican electorate is tremendous. So that's the other going to kick in after this is over.

COOPER: So you're looking for pressure to build on Gingrich, on Santorum to drop out?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you just have to let this play out until March. You just have to let it keep going. But even after it's over and the contrast from four years ago and today and when the Democrats, when they went through the primary, both candidates kind of got better in the eyes of the electorate. This cycle, it doesn't seem as if the candidates are getting better in the eyes of the Republican electorate. So what fixes that? Once it's over, the desire to beat Barack Obama. That rallies the base.

CASTELLANOS: And February may look like it has some activity, but it doesn't from inside of the campaign. It doesn't really have that much. They are four small caucuses, two really relatively small primaries. Each contribute about 1.25 percent of the total delegates.

But more importantly, Gloria was right. There's going to be (ph) debate activity. What does that mean? The man with the money, Mitt Romney, would have time to consolidate his campaign and develop strength for the big payoff, Super Tuesday.

And what does a Newt Gingrich or a Santorum have to do? Well, Newt Gingrich has got to go out there and be even more extreme. Set his hair on fire to get the media attention. And the more, of course, you do that, the more you marginalize yourself and disqualify yourself. The presidency is about stability and strength, not about wandering all over the map and sending off moon rockets. BRAZILE: And instead of spending his money trying to define himself and promote himself, Mitt Romney decided to spend all his money, $13 million, demolishing a conservative; you know, basically making his negatives go up at the same time Newt Gingrich's unfavorability has also gone up. So this is going to hurt him. It will hurt him in the general election. Florida is going to be a very key state in the fall. And I don't see how Mitt Romney come comes back to, you know, sort of giving a better image of himself when he has spent so much time demolishing a conservative opponent.

COOPER: Yes. We are just minutes away now from most of the polling places across Florida closing. We're going to be watching for the early vote totals to come in, and we'll bring them to you. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: You can see the clock here. Just a little over four minutes until the polls close in most of Florida. Some polling places open for another hour, but we'll begin to get results in just about four minutes.

Republicans looking at 50 delegates in the state of Florida tonight. That's their number, the big delegate basket, but when the Obama campaign looks at Florida, they see 29; 29 electoral votes.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is at the White House for us.

And Jess, the Obama team watches the Republican primary tonight. What are they looking for? What lessons are they trying to learn about the big battleground come November?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this state, John, as you know, could be the whole ball game come November, because it is crucial to the Obama team, given the fact that they might lose parts of the Rust Belt, especially Ohio. And winning Florida for them could make the difference between keeping the White House or not. So they're looking especially at the Hispanic vote. The independent vote will be important, but they're not voting tonight. So it's the Hispanic vote that will be key especially.

KING: Let me take a walk over to the Magic Wall as you make that point, Jess. Let me ask you. I assume they've watched the polling. They see Romney has been leading in all the polling, but assume that if Romney wins Florida. Let's just start, I guess, with a yes or no calculation, but if Romney wins in Florida, do they see him as then the prohibitive favorite again or do they think this is going to march on for a while?

YELLIN: I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive. I think that they've only seen them as the prohibitive favorite, but this thing is still going to march on for a while. And they are eating their popcorn, smiling and enjoying that fact, John.

KING: Eating their popcorn. I just brought up the demographics of the map in Florida. Jess just mentioned the importance of the Latino vote. Let me stretch this out a little bit. The darker the orange, the higher the percentage of Latinos.

So you have obviously down in the Miami area, large Cuban Americans down here. But you have also a lot of Puerto Ricans, a lot of Mexican Americans from Latin and South, Central America, as well. And just 2/3 of the Latino vote nationally went President Obama's way this time. If you look at the polling, he's down a bit. How worried are they that if they lose just a margin of that vote, it puts a state like this, and if I go back in time and look here, go back to '08, President Obama carried. That's the Republican primary. Coming over with just 51 percent. So with a narrow win and a big Obama win, how worried are they if they go down just a bit among Latinos, this state is a tough one?

YELLIN: If they go down, they would be very worried indeed, John. But they are doing their absolute best, and you will see they will be very aggressive about courting that Latino vote by driving up, as much as possible, Romney's negatives on this front.

They are emphatic that this lead-up to -- that the debates so far have put the Republicans so far out on immigration, especially Romney, that it would hurt him in the general election, John. And then on positions on foreclosures and other issues would also hurt him, and that will come up in the general election.

KING: It will come up in the general election, but I was just in Florida, talking to some Democrats, as you mentioned. Let's do the economy first.

You have 2009, unemployment, the darker the green, the higher the unemployment rate. This is when President Obama took office. And you see some dark spots up there. The Panhandle, some darker spots down here, some darker spots to the East of Naples. Pop that out a little bit. Let's come back in.

This is when the president took office. Remember the shade of green, because this is now -- and you notice Florida is darker. The unemployment rate has gone up during the Obama presidency, Jess: 9.9 percent now. They have to look at that and realize they have a problem.

YELLIN: Absolutely. And this is the case in point why they do not want this election to be a referendum on President Obama and his stewardship of the economy, but instead a contrast election on the different views of how to handle the economy in the future.

For example, they want to point out that Mitt Romney's position on foreclosures is let the market bottom out; don't give current homeowners who are underwater money to bail themselves out. And the president's position is to help people bail themselves out, and so contrast versus referendum, that would be the big battle, John.

KING: Well, you mentioned foreclosures, and I will bring up the foreclosures filings in Florida. Again, the darker the color, the higher the problem, if you will. You see down here, this is an area where the Democrats win. If you look down here, Jess, along the coast down in Miami here, this is a huge Democratic area. That's where you have the highest foreclosure problem. Then up in Tampa, key for independent votes, right in here, you say the president will make the case if it's Governor Romney, his approach is let the market rule. He's going to have to defend his own programs, as well, which have been quite controversial and many people say not nearly as successful as promised.

YELLIN: They know that they have to defend that record, and they will try to turn the tables and make it about Romney's approach. That is the effort.

KING: Jessica Yellin for us, our chief White House correspondent. This is a huge state tonight. It will be a huge battleground in the fall. Florida always is. So as we watch tonight, we're going to learn a lot about the Republican race. We're going to learn a lot as we look ahead to Florida and stay with us. CNN's coverage of "America Votes, 2012" continues right now.