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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Florida GOP Primary

Aired January 31, 2012 - 19:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The presidential race has been won by Governor Ronald Reagan of California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor Clinton is now President Bill Clinton.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Too close to call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There it is. George W. Bush reelected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Obama president-elect of the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Florida is the next stop on the road to the White House.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "AC 360": Buckle up for another decision day in the 2012 presidential race.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The message we should give Mitt Romney is we aren't that stupid and you aren't that clever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We could see (INAUDIBLE) surprise a day from Newt Gingrich.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This race is getting to be even more interesting.

ANNOUNCER: It's Florida's choice. Newt Gingrich clawed his way back to the top in South Carolina.

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

ANNOUNCER: And Mitt Romney needs to drag him down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's gone from pillow to post almost like a pinball machine which is highly erratic.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are a lot of folks who talk tough, what makes you tough is what's at your core.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No way they're going to stop the momentum that we have started.

(APPLAUSE)

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will go all of the way to the convention and I expect to win the nomination.

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the beginning of a long hard song.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are 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)

BLITZER: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. The last polls close in Florida about one hour from now. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. It is another critical night for the four remaining Republican candidates, especially, especially for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. We have the most crews in the most locations. Our correspondents are out in force including Candy Crowley and Jim Acosta. First Candy to you at Romney headquarters set the scene.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what is interesting, Wolf is I think as you will see behind me, they are beginning to collect early, perhaps signaling that they at least believe this will be an early night. Certainly the Romney camp is looking for a strong showing. They would like a big gap between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney perhaps in the double-digits, but more than that, they want a broad victory looking particularly at conservatives and at women, because they believe if they can win in those two groups, they will have selling points, as they move forward -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Jim Acosta is over at the Newt Gingrich headquarters. Set the scene over there, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is not South Carolina, different mood here, more somber, not as celebratory as it was 10 days ago, but Newt Gingrich insists he will fight on to the convention later on this year. He says he can win the nomination, and he told me earlier today something very interesting about the state of the race. He made the point that Mitt Romney has not closed the deal with conservatives. He's got a point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by, guys, both of you. Anderson Cooper of course is with us every step of the way -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Wolf, Florida is unlike any state that we have seen so far. Most of the polling places across Florida are closing right now, but voting continues in the panhandle for another hour until 8:00 p.m. Eastern. That's when we're going to get our first glimpse of how this very important contest could actually turn out. Since Rick Santorum won Iowa, Mitt Romney won New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, the Florida results might bring a little more clarity to this wild Republican race.

John King is going to map out the results at the "magic wall", bring us exit poll data. Erin Burnett is going to show us how money is influencing the presidential race and a ton of money (INAUDIBLE) in ads. We call it battleground Florida. First to John, what are you looking for tonight, John?

JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING USA": Anderson, the biggest state, the most diverse state, the most ideologically diverse state that has voted in the Republican race so far. Let's go back to the 2008 map and take a look at this. Jim Acosta just mentioned conservatives. Up here in the panhandle, this orange spot, this is Mike Huckabee in 2008.

The darker red, that's actually Mitt Romney in 2008, did very well in Jacksonville, military community. He needs to match that tonight. This is a big populated area down here, Tampa, Orlando voters down here. Obviously the Cuban American population in Miami, retirees along the coast, a very big diverse electorate, one of the key places we will watch is up here where you have evangelical voters, but it is up here where we need to wait an hour. The polls are still open in much of the panhandle.

We're already getting some of the best exit poll data though. As we come in and look we can tell you about who voted the composition of the electorate in Florida today. If we bring this out, remember in South Carolina, you had a very, very conservative electorate. In Florida it's a somewhat conservative electorate, 37 percent of Florida Republicans describe themselves as somewhat conservative, 34 percent is very conservative. This is the key battleground so far between Romney and Gingrich, fascinating to watch how this plays out tonight. What is the biggest issue, 9.9 percent unemployment in the state of Florida should be no surprise, the economy by far. Six in 10 voters today say the economy is their number one issue, illegal immigration only three percent, abortion only six percent. These are Republicans of course, the budget deficit 24 percent. What else in this electorate tonight? The most important candidate quality, Anderson, right there, Florida Republicans know their state will be right in the thick of it come November, so as they voted today, they are looking for a candidate who can defeat Obama. That is the number one issue for them. One more thing we want to look at here, were the debates a factor in your vote, 86 percent of Florida Republicans say the debates were a big factor as they made their -- cast their ballots today, some of them, Anderson, though voted early.

COOPER: Yes and we've seen (INAUDIBLE) state after state the importance of these debates. Let's check in with Erin Burnett. Erin, what are you watching tonight?

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, "OUTFRONT": All right, well Anderson we're going to be talking about the economy. You see that the most important issue and you see that in this state. We're going to be going and looking at the counties what the tale really is. It's pretty amazing here, two that we've picked, Flagler County and Sumter County. Why did I pick them?

They've had the biggest population growth in the state and the biggest population growth in the entire country over the past decade almost doubling. Unemployment rate though very different in Flagler, 14 percent, Sumter 7.8 percent, one of the few places in Florida it's below the average and I've got a story I'll tell you later about a place there called The Villages with a very close tie to Mitt Romney -- back to you.

COOPER: All right, Erin thanks. Our analysts will follow every twist and turn tonight, break it down like no one else can. Gloria Borger and David Gergen are working their sources along with the "Best Political Team" here in the Election Center and our experts are out in the field, both at the campaign headquarters at a watch party in Miami Beach. We'll also be looking ahead to the next contest in Nevada.

Tom Foreman is in Las Vegas with a focus group. Undecided voters, they're going to be watching the Florida results, listening to the candidates tonight. We're going to bring you those results. Also in real time, you'll see that during the speeches of the candidates -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, we've got votes, we've got actual official votes already coming in. Most of the state the polls closed at the top of the hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Take a look at this. Very, very early only one percent of the precincts reporting, but Mitt Romney is ahead 52 percent to 28 percent for Newt Gingrich, 12,904 for Mitt Romney. That's almost 6,000 votes ahead of Newt Gingrich, 6,931, Rick Santorum, 11 percent, 2,800 votes, Ron Paul seven percent, 1,645, very, very early.

These are the early voting. They have been voting for actually 10 days or so in Florida. Early balloting as well as absentee balloting, we're getting some early numbers and with one percent in, Mitt Romney is ahead. Let's go to Candy Crowley and Jim Acosta once again. Candy, they are looking at numbers. They're applauding over there behind you over at Romney headquarters. These are the first official numbers that are just coming in.

CROWLEY: Yes, it may be only one percent, but they are absolutely thrilled here obviously. I have to tell you that in fact, these folks are coming in pretty early. That is always a sign of anticipation. They expect a good night, and the Romney people expect a good night, again, they are looking sort of forward now, Wolf, and where they go next and where their toughest states are going to be. This is a campaign that really got renewed life.

They certainly weren't dead after South Carolina, but they needed a huge influx of some helium so they could float this campaign again, and certainly, they expect to get this in Florida. They'd like a good solid win. They would love double-digits. They'll take any kind of win, but they really would like to have a big one. They intend to keep going. We heard Mitt Romney say earlier that if he gets attacked, he's going to push back. They really want to keep their foot on the neck of Newt Gingrich as they move forward.

BLITZER: Big state Florida, lots of people voting today, a very diverse state. Candy, stand by. Jim Acosta is over at Newt Gingrich headquarters right now. Walk us through the strategy that the Gingrich folks have for coming back assuming that he does not win in Florida and taking the nomination?

ACOSTA: Well, Newt Gingrich told me earlier today, himself, that the national polls still show him out in the lead, so to all of those questions about dropping out of the race, he says he is not about to do that, but if you look to a Gingrich campaign internal e-mail that went out to supporters earlier this week, it shows what essentially they feel is a chart -- a path to the nomination, if you will, and essentially it points out that Florida, yes, it has 50 delegates and it's winner-take-all here in the state, but because Florida was penalized for moving up its primary in the calendar, those 50 delegates are actually a smaller prize than say what is at stake in Georgia, 76 delegates there. That is a state where Newt Gingrich was a congressman, obviously rose to the office of speaker of the House of Representatives.

And so they see you know this race unfolding in a very long drawn-out process where you know Super Tuesday was many of its southern states may favor Newt Gingrich as opposed to perhaps Nevada and Michigan. Newt Gingrich, himself, said earlier this week, well, Nevada has a sizable Mormon population that may favor the former Massachusetts governor. But at the same time, Wolf, remember out in that race for the Senate between Sharron Angle and Harry Reid just two years ago there is also a big Tea Party force out there in Nevada, and that could work to Newt Gingrich's advantage.

BLITZER: Certainly could potentially out there, Jim Acosta over at Gingrich headquarters in Orlando. We got some numbers coming in, more numbers, more precincts reporting. You can see eight percent of the precincts now reporting Mitt Romney maintaining a significant lead, 52 percent of majority with eight percent of the precincts reporting to 25 percent for Newt Gingrich, 12 percent Rick Santorum, eight percent for Ron Paul, 44,000 vote lead, 86,500 or so for Mitt Romney, 41,861 for Newt Gingrich a significant lead indeed. Let's go over to John King over at the "Magic Wall" -- eight percent of the precincts that's a significant number that's already come in.

KING: Coming in pretty quickly, because you mentioned the early voting and the absentee voting as you see the map fill in remember the dark red is Mitt Romney. He is about 52 percent with eight percent in. This is one of the questions. Can he -- will the Romney total if he holds this lead and wins the state, will the Romney total compare Newt Gingrich as conservatives would coalesce and beat him? But when you add up Gingrich and Santorum at the end of the night whereas compared to Mitt Romney, that is assuming Governor Romney keeps this lead. And as you look at the map I want to go back to 2008 to just show you, because remember Governor Romney was a competitor back in 2008 and I want to circle the areas where he did very well.

Mitt Romney won up here. Mitt Romney won here. Mitt Romney won down here. That lighter red is John McCain from four years ago and the orange is Mike Huckabee so remember these strongholds and I will circle a couple more here, strong areas for Romney here. That's back in 2008. As we come forward to 2012 he is starting to fill in some of those blocks. You would expect him to start with his base from 2008 and then the question is Wolf, how can he expand it? How can he deepen it?

If you believe the late polls, Governor Romney went into Election Day today with a significant lead so a couple of factors. These early votes we're getting clearly the absentee and the early voting are coming up quickly. Now as we wait, some of the last places we're waiting for are up here, over in the panhandle. These polls are open until 8:00 so we need to be careful about what we say about our exit polls, and the like, but as it fills in, you're seeing a lot of dark red. The question then would be (INAUDIBLE) and how much has Romney grown from the 2008 experience. Florida was essentially the end of the line for Governor Romney in 2008. He hopes, hopes now it is a rebuilding springboard.

BLITZER: Yes, John, you make an excellent point. These are early voting results coming in. By and large they're coming in very, very quickly. Eight percent of the precincts now reporting and significantly just gone up to nine percent. In fact, we'll show it in a moment, but Mitt Romney maintaining a significant lead, maintaining majority. A lot of the people voted early voting, absentee ballots. We're standing by. We're getting new numbers coming in very, very quickly.

Remember, all -- remember all of the polls will be closed at the top of the hour, and presumably we will share with you all of the exit poll numbers. We'll see if we can make projections, all of that standing by. Let's go over to CNN's Joe Johns right now. He's standing by over at Ron Paul headquarters. You're in Henderson, Nevada, already outside of Las Vegas. Isn't that right? The Ron Paul campaign decided they weren't going to compete effectively in Florida, winner-take-all so they are looking to win a prize in Nevada.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. That is very true, Wolf. And when you think about it, it is a little odd. I mean if you really listen to it, viewers, we are watching the Florida results from Nevada. This is the ballroom of the Green Valley Ranch Casino Resort in Henderson, Nevada, which is just outside of Las Vegas, and one of the big questions here of course is what kind of crowd is Ron Paul going to get here tonight, simply because they are not really voting, just you know, to any great extent here.

Now, but one thing I can tell you is this. If you look out this door right here, you do see a bunch of Ron Paul supporters with signs getting ready to come into the room. Now these are people, a lot of them who just got the alert only what, a day and a half ago, e-mails went out. There was a little blurb in the newspaper that Ron Paul essentially was going to have a rally here, and that is what they are going to see. They're also going to get an opportunity to see Ron Paul.

So, why are they doing this? Well a variety of reasons. First of all he's focusing on Nevada because it is a caucus state. It's a small state. The other thing is tonight he wants to step up on that stage and give a speech to capitalize, Wolf, on all the media that happens on primary night even though he is really not competing to any large extent in Florida, so he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too, basically and that's the name of the game -- Wolf back to you.

BLITZER: Yes, the Nevada caucuses coming up this Saturday. We'll be all over that as well. Joe Johns covering the Ron Paul campaign. Dana Bash is covering the Rick Santorum campaign. Walk us through Santorum's strategy, because he is not in Florida either. He's where you are in Las Vegas.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is right. And just like Ron Paul, he feels that there is no reason for him to be in Florida, because it is very clear that there is no way he's going to get the 50 winner-take-all delegates. So that is why he is here in Nevada. In fact he's not too far from where I am. This is his headquarters. He'll be here maybe in about an hour, hour and a half. Right now he's got a town hall meeting. (INAUDIBLE) Wolf his first event, real event in this state at all.

In fact, this headquarters is pretty new. They just got two paid staffers on the payroll maybe three or four days ago and they just opened his headquarters. It just shows you the kind of fly by the seat of your pants shoestring kind of campaign that they are running. They do have money. They reported today that they have over $1 million cash on hand which is not bad, but that is money that they are going to have to keep in the bank for the long haul if there is any, any chance that Rick Santorum is going to stay in and potentially, potentially because this race has been such a roller coaster take on a surprise. This state is something that is important to him because it is not winner-take-all. Even if he gets two, three delegates in the caucuses, that's something if he wants to add them all up.

BLITZER: His daughter, Bella, his little 3-year-old daughter had pneumonia. She's doing much better now, right?

BASH: Yes, that is what he is saying. The senator of course came off the campaign trail. He was supposed to be in Florida over the weekend. He was at home with his daughter who is in the hospital, but he is saying thank God that she is doing much, much better, which is why he's able to get back on the trail.

BLITZER: All of our viewers wish her only, only the best. All right Dana, don't go too far away -- Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Yes, in Orlando right now members of the Gingrich campaign are working the phones. As we countdown the final poll closings our ballot camera is going to take you behind the scenes for the vote counting and we're going to take a closer look at the economy and its influence on this battle for Florida tonight. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back to our continuing coverage. All the polls close about 40 minutes from now. The Republican race has been incredibly volatile in Florida as it has been in other states. Back in October remember Mitt Romney was the clear leader in the polls. Newt Gingrich jumped ahead of Romney a couple of months later, Romney reclaimed the lead in Florida in mid-January while Gingrich and Rick Santorum duked it out for second place.

Gingrich surged again after his South Carolina win running neck and neck with Romney in Florida. Romney's numbers went up after our CNN debate last week. The final poll out today shows he has a sizable lead over Newt Gingrich. The national polls though tell a little different story. Romney peaked after his win in New Hampshire while Gingrich was way back with the rest of the pack. Romney started losing ground after that while Gingrich made steady gains.

Gingrich shot into the lead nationally after his South Carolina win, but that has tightened up in recent days. Again we're talking nationally, he and Romney are running neck and neck when you look across the nation. A lot to talk about, our correspondents are all over the place. We're going to go to them shortly over at Gingrich headquarters. Let's talk a little bit about what you are seeing so far in terms of turnout in terms of what people are talking about in Florida.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the bitterness of the contest I think is showing not just, obviously candidates don't like each other, but it is penetrating down to the grass roots. You have a huge percentage -- majority of people voting for Gingrich and exit polls saying they are not going to be happy at all if Romney winds up being the nominee. This is a big problem. When it was the Hillary and Barack show, there were some elites who hated each other in those campaigns. When we got down to the grass roots most Democrats said well I'm for Barack, but I'm not against Hillary. I could take either one. And this is -- this is -- this -- tonight is about bile, bitterness and bad blood --

(CROSSTALK) COOPER: But how long does that really last?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's see.

(CROSSTALK)

ALEX CASTELLANOS, PARTNER AT FIRM SPECIALIZING IN GOP ADS: I know Paul thinks this is Christmas for Democrats to see Republicans fighting, and it is. But you know at first we say oh Republicans have no passion. They don't like anybody. Well now guess what? We're having an election. They're liking their candidates and if you ask them, they say, no I don't like the other guy. I like my guy --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- they're disliking the opponent, but they're not in love with Gingrich or Romney --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is all about negativity.

CASTELLANOS: This is what happens in tough, contested primaries when it is a tough choice to make between the candidates and when no one has really separated themselves. At the end of the day as soon as somebody wins and gets a little bit momentum, I think you're going to see Republicans come together, because in one way the leader of the Republican Party is Barack Obama. He is the guy -- he's the guy we all feel the same about.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Alex, that's not enough to simply beat President Obama in the fall. You're going to have to run a campaign about ideas about issues and on that Newt Gingrich is absolutely right.

CASTELLANOS: Well, that's not what David Axelrod has said though, right?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I am not running a campaign --

CASTELLANOS: He said the opposite. He said that what they want do is run a campaign that is just a choice, not a -- the referendum on Obama. What Republicans want to do if we take Axelrod's advice is make it a referendum on just Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And here's the other big factor. Talked about polls, well Gallup came out with a new poll today showing a 50- state trend that President Obama's favorable, unfavorable ratings and he's down in 47 states compared to where he was one year ago. He has dropped in 47 out of 50 states, so Paul and Donna want to do a little dance now and I understand the Republicans have the ball and you are dancing as you watch us sometimes run with the ball and sometimes move backwards. The fact is once the focus shifts back to Barack Obama the stewardship of the economy, the debt, spending, unemployment --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: When you look at Obama today versus a year ago, three years ago, four years ago, OK, you are comparing him to the almighty not to the alternative. And this is Obama's strategy, right --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: It's not theoretical perfection. Right, compared to the hopes and dreams of a lot his supporters he is not doing as well as he was doing in 2008 --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: But compared to the other side, and that is how these things are run. They are a choice and not a referendum, the Republican brand is being damaged by this. People are watching these debates. They are following this stuff, and the Republican brand in all of the national polls is going way down. In fact in "The Wall Street Journal" --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Democrats were up by six in --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney is running directly even in the battleground states with Barack Obama this week. So you're a very vulnerable president as we're watching Republicans --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need more and more primaries like this.

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: Actually there are a lot of studies on this and Paul has seen them, too, and a lot of experience and we all know that this is like a playoff game. What happens in one playoff game does not really mean much about the Super Bowl, the next game. These are distinct entities. The world changes when you're running against a nominee. The Republican brand will be judged in contrast to Obama's failure (INAUDIBLE) --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will look a lot better.

(CROSSTALK)

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: That's if there are lingering doubts among conservatives about Mitt Romney's values. That's if Mitt Romney can finally you know get conservatives to rally behind his campaign. Right now we still don't know if he has the capability. We know he has the money.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: And no matter -- no matter what happens tonight this race on the Republican side is certainly not over. We are seeing that right now. Gingrich headquarters, Jim Acosta is standing by there. Jim, I understand they just put up a sign. What is it?

ACOSTA: That's right, Anderson. You can read it. It basically sums up the felling on the part of the Gingrich campaign tonight. It says 46 states to go. The message is up on the jumbo screen here in the ballroom and also on the podium where Newt Gingrich will talk later tonight. It is a sign of defiance from the Gingrich campaign. I can tell you we were just listening to the music in this room a few moments ago. They were playing the Human League's "Don't You Want Me Baby". Perhaps it's a sign that Gingrich is hoping that conservatives will still want him (INAUDIBLE) to come. Contrast that with what the music was on South Carolina's primary night. It was the theme from "Rocky", so a slightly different tone from the Gingrich campaign, but obviously a defiant one.

COOPER: Kicking it back old school to the early '80s -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do a little bit of that --

COOPER: I could for you but (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Stand by. We've got some significant numbers of polls -- polls of actual votes coming in. Thirty percent of the precincts have now reported and Mitt Romney maintaining a very impressive lead, 50 percent to 29 percent for Newt Gingrich.

Almost 300,000 votes for Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich 172,000 votes, Rick Santorum 12 percent, 72,000 votes, almost seven percent for Ron Paul, 30 percent of the vote in, now 32 percent and Mitt Romney still way ahead 50 percent to 29 percent. We're going to assess what is going on. All the polls will be closed at the top of the hour. CNN's John King is standing by. We'll go to him in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Most of the polls have closed in Florida. Half an hour from now all of the polls will close, but take a look. These are official numbers already coming in with 37 percent of the precincts reporting. More than a third Mitt Romney maintaining a significant lead over Newt Gingrich, 49 percent to 30 percent. He's 145,000 votes ahead. Mitt Romney ahead of Newt Gingrich, 362,000 to 217,000. Rick Santorum down at 13 percent, and Ron Paul, 7 percent.

Let's walk over to John King. He's over at the magic wall for us. Take us inside of these numbers because if Mitt Romney is doing well, it looks like he's doing well in most of the state.

KING: At the moment, he is running up a very impressive showing, as you mentioned, 38 percent of the vote. I'm going to draw a line across the state, because, Wolf, you know the old saying about Florida, the further north you go, the further south you get. Why? Because Georgia and Alabama, this part of Florida down there, you have a lot of retirees from the north, from the Midwest, they tend to vote more like those states. But up here, you see Speaker Gingrich is the lighter orange color. He is doing best up in the most conservative part of the state. We'll watch as that plays out.

Governor Romney running up Speaker Gingrich 21 counties down here, Governor Romney at the moment running up impressive margins as we get into the more populated areas, such as Miami, Naples, and Tampa-St. Pete area, Orlando -- these are critical areas in the states now. They'd be critical in November as well.

As you watch the map fill in like this, just want to go back in to 2008, just to show you the comparison when you had Romney, McCain and Huckabee who was the light orange, and Romney did OK in Florida, McCain obviously won the state, that was essentially the deal-breaker, the clincher there, you come back to where we are now, Romney is filling in.

One of the questions a lot of conservatives will ask tonight, we're up to 40 percent now. Romney at 50 percent, is they'll ask, if we added up Gingrich and Santorum, if we add up the conservative vote, Florida vote if you will, assuming Governor Romney holds this lead, does it beat Mitt Romney? Well, at the moment, if you add them all up, you just barely, including Ron Paul, you just barely catch up with Governor Romney, if they didn't split.

So, this is interesting right now to watch this breakdown, Wolf -- 30, 12, so 42 percent for the candidates who say they are a better conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. As you watch map fill in tonight, the big question will be -- if fit stays like this and if you have a margin anywhere like that, A, Romney would be able to raise money out this, B, he will have huge momentum going into the month of February, we're closing the books on January tonight, he goes into a month of February, that supports him very well if you look at the contest.

A couple of quick things in our exit polling to tell you about. The Florida electorate tonight, 72 percent of the Republicans voting are married. At 8:00, we'll be able to tell you how this breaks down. We have to wait and respect the final polls places still open.

By income in Florida today, the largest group making between $50,000 to $100,000, this has been Mitt Romney's best group, $200,000 and more a year. You watch the income breakdown.

And you were noting earlier, Wolf, that Ron Paul is already out of the state of Nevada, as is Rick Santorum.

Ron Paul's best group has been these voters, 18 to 24, 25 to 29. Only 5 percent of your electorate in Florida today, younger. Obviously, you know this, Wolf, very well from personal experience. Florida is your home state. Your mom lives down there.

And 50 to 64, 65 and older, 40 to 49, if you look right here, more than 70 percent of your electorate in Florida today is over the age of 50. So, an older electorate, a bigger electorate, a more diverse electorate, we're about to learn a lot.

BLITZER: Yes, 41 percent of the vote, of the actual vote is now in, and he is maintaining that very impressive lead right now. We'll see if it holds. But clearly, when all of the polls close at the top of the hour, we'll be able to get into some more exit poll numbers.

These numbers in Florida, they are coming in quickly, Anderson. It looks like they've got their act together in Florida right now. A lot of us remember what happened back in 2000.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, certainly.

I think Donna Brazile remembers that also very well. But let's not even get.

Let's talk --Ari Fleischer remembers, and let's not even get started.

Let's go over to the cube, where our political director, Mark Preston, is standing by, basically crunching the numbers. We want to know if are we going to be able to project the winner at 8:00 tonight when all of the polls in Florida are finally closed? Obviously, we would not try to even project a winner until all of the polls are closed.

How does it look?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, you know, Anderson, the reason why we are seeing 40 percent of the vote in right now is because there was such a heavy amount of absentee ballots cast before people even voted today. So, those votes were already counted. Once we hit 7:00, those went into the system and then they spit it out.

So, what we're doing right now is we have our statisticians who are in the quarantine room, they are together crunching the numbers and they're taking that raw vote, these absentee votes, they're mingling it together with the vote that has been cast today, the one -- you know, the bit that has come out, and taking the exit poll data that we are looking at, and they're putting it all together, and they're taking what we call the overlay. I mean, talk about how confusing this is to the poor guys downstairs.

COOPER: I like the quarantine room. I like the sound of that. It's like it is hermetically sealed room.

PRESTON: It's fun. It's a lot of fun.

COOPER: Yes.

PRESTON: So -- but they are taking the overlays of the specific interviews that they did with people that came out to cast their vote. They're matching it up against the numbers, to see how got that exit poll data is. If they think the data is good, they'll use the exit poll data, put it together with the real vote, come out with the number, and that's what we know --

COOPER: So there is already a huge amount of exit poll data which we have not revealed because the polls are not closed.

PRESTON: Well, the polls are not closed in Panhandle, and we certainly don't want to cause somebody to change their vote or perhaps, you know, tell somebody not go to the polls.

COOPER: But they're already using that exit poll data, even though we haven't talked about it on the air to incorporate into this matrix of this formula.

PRESTON: Yes. They absolutely are. They're taking those numbers, putting it together into a formula, and seeing if they can come out with something that they feel is statistically strong enough to make a call.

COOPER: How soon will we know if we can make a call?

PRESTON: That's like the $1 million question. But you know something, we could call it as early as 8:00, because that's when the polls close. But, again, we don't know if that's going to happen yet. We have to go back to them and say, do they feel comfortable.

COOPER: And even if we can't call it at 8:00, we will be able to talk about this influx of exit poll data which we have?

PRESTON: We'll have a stronger understanding and been able to tell the viewers just a better understanding of why people voted a certain way or why we think the trends are going towards Mr. Romney or towards Mr. Gingrich.

One thing we should point out, though, the numbers are very high right now from Mr. Romney, right?

We see it over 50 percent. The reason why is because he was expected to do better with the absentee vote, because he had a better organization. That number could drop and we expect it to drop.

COOPER: More than 600,000 absentee votes and early votes had already been counted before this day.

PRESTON: Yes, a lot.

COOPER: We'll continue to check in with you again.

We'll see if we're able to project this at 8:00. We'll certainly be able to bring you more exit poll information.

I want to check in with Erin Burnett now. She is tracking the ways that money has influencing this presidential race we call battleground Florida -- Erin.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: All right. And, Anderson, you know, we're talking about how important the economy is. That's one thing we know from the exit polls is that that was the most important issue for voters tonight. What we don't know is the voters who said that the economy is the most important issue, whom did they vote for? Whom did they vote for? That's the big question, because in Florida, that is the story.

Look at the housing prices in the state of Florida. This is since June 2007 when housing prices peaked nationally. This is a stunning and terrible picture and it says what you need to know about Florida. You are looking at home prices in the best case scenario down 46 percent from their peak. Central Florida, homes have lost more than half their value, 1.6 million homes in state of Florida is vacant right now, 44 percent of the homes are under water.

And in Florida, more than almost any other state in this country, a housing problem is an unemployment crisis. Manufacturing in Florida is not making cars. It's making cement and making homes for all of the people who have moved to the state in recent years.

And when you look at the unemployment picture, you'll see it here. Unemployment in the state of Florida, almost every where and every region is higher than the national average of 8.5 percent.

And one thing I wanted to highlight, central Florida, at the top of the program, I highlighted two counties, they really do tell the tale of Florida. Flagler County, 14 percent unemployment. That was sort of a tertiary retirement community, between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. You see people moved out and you start to see a big unemployment problem. We have not seen prices bottom and 14 percent is a very high number.

Sumter County, though, one of the few places in Florida where unemployment is below the national average, and I picked Sumter because it's got a very interesting story for this election. There's a retirement community there called the Villages, 50,000 people live there. When you look at the most recent disclosures on the secret super PACs, you see an owner there Renee Morris, among the people giving $250,000 to Mitt Romney, may not surprise you that he actually spoke there yesterday, and I should be careful to say to his super PAC. And he spoke there yesterday.

But right there, one of the oldest communities in Florida, more than 40 percent of the people, Anderson, who live in Sumter County are 65 or older. And in the state of Florida, it's only 17 percent, and where you have more people 65 and older, you tend to have -- well, people who don't want jobs or more stable jobs supporting those people, among younger people in the community.

COOPER: Yes, it's devastating to see the percentages by which those housing values have already dropped.

BURNETT: It truly.

COOPER: All right. We're going to check in Erin throughout the evening.

Back with Gloria Borger and David Gergen.

In terms of the enthusiasm among Republicans, the longer this race goes on, does this hurt the enthusiasm?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that's the big question the Romney campaign is asking itself right now. Look, what they are trying to do is get the base of the Republican Party excited about Mitt Romney, and we'll see tonight whether that's going to happen, whether they can get the Tea Partiers or the very strongly conservative voters excited about Mitt Romney.

But the longer this race continues, and there's a lot of name- calling and the name that Newt Gingrich is calling Mitt Romney is "liberal," by the way, which is no good for Republicans. He's not even a moderate anymore, he's a liberal. The question is: will they be able to get their base out?

What they will tell you is that you know what Barack Obama energizes our base more than anything, and they'll remain energized. But think that the question remains for Mitt Romney, whether he can appeal to the base of the party and get them out enthusiastically if he's the nominee.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The other question, though, tonight, that is now looming ahead of us is whether Newt Gingrich can survive what's happening. You know, he's come back from the dead twice. One more time than Lazarus, you know, and you have to give him credit for that and he may still come back.

But if this race shapes up to be anything like the outcome shape of anything like 20 percent victory, you know, and that Romney actually beats Gingrich and Santorum together, one has the sense that is going to change the dynamic of the whole race.

BORGER: Sure.

COOPER: So, at some point, does the Republicans want to focus on Barack Obama and no longer focus on intra-Republican battle?

BORGER: We saw that already in Florida, you saw how the establishment came out for, right, for Mitt Romney against Newt Gingrich. You know, they, they want this over with. But, you know, four years ago, McCain won Florida and Huckabee and Mitt Romney continued on.

GERGEN: Yes, but here's the other thing though. We saw tonight in Florida in the exit poll that the most important quality that drove the voting was electability -- who can beat Barack Obama.

COOPER: And 45 (ph) percent.

GERGEN: And it was a very large number, and this kind of result is going to be leaving Romney much more competitive with Barack Obama and drive down Newt Gingrich versus Barack Obama. Newt Gingrich is already behind by double-digits behind Obama.

COPPER: I want to bring this the chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. No doubt they're going to be watching the results of the race very closely. What did the Obama team just learn from the attacks on Romney and the fact that he survived them?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Democrats would argue that this basically wasn't a test, essentially that Mitt Romney survived what is an initial attack by Newt Gingrich. It's nothing compared to what he might face from the Obama campaign.

But I'd point out, Anderson, that every single attack on Bain, and on the ties to the Medicare company, on all these fronts were initiated by the Democrats and then picked up by Newt Gingrich. So, you will see the very same lines of attack in the general election against Mitt Romney, again, if Mitt Romney is the nominee

COOPER: It's interesting, Jessica, to hear that, because David Gergen, I mean, we saw Mitt Romney in this last debate really kind of standing up to those attacks on his income, on his taxes in a way we haven't seen before. He seemed to have hone his message after kind of waffling in the face, or shrinking in the face of some of those attacks.

GERGEN: Yes, one has the sense that Mitt Romney operates with a strategy. He had a strategy to work above the fray and it didn't work in South Carolina. And so, his team changed the strategy in coming to Florida and had him go pummel Newt Gingrich, not just through the advertising by his super PAC, but by him, personally, and it worked.

Whereas, Newt, for all his, you know, wonderfully interesting and brilliance, had no strategy. And I think that it showed up. I think that's why he got beaten in the debates.

BORGER: Well, in the debate, he didn't know who he was. In Wolf's debate, he didn't know whether he would show up as the front runner or would he the insurgent anymore.

COOPER: Yes.

Seventeen minutes or so until the polls closed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we will see if we can make a projection at the top the hour when all of the polls in Florida are closed. We'll share that with you, obviously, as soon as we can. We're also going to be speaking with Ann Romney, the wife of Mitt Romney.

Much more of our coverage only just beginning.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Less than 15 minutes before the top of the hour. As soon as all the polls in the state of the Florida close, perhaps, perhaps we'll be able to make a projection.

But let's show you what we know right now. These are official numbers, the voting is coming in very, very quickly -- almost half of the vote in Florida is now in, 49 percent. Look at this, Mitt Romney has got 48 percent, to 31 percent for Newt Gingrich. He is 173,000 votes or so ahead of Newt Gingrich, 475,000 to 302,000. Rick Santorum with 13 percent, 126,000, 67,000 for Ron Paul.

And actually now 50 percent of the vote is now in, and it changed even as I was speaking, and still 48 percent to 31 percent -- a very, very significant lead for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Candy Crowley is over at the Mitt Romney's headquarters right now. Candy, you just had the chance to speak exclusively with a very special guest.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I did, indeed. You know, Mitt Romney upstairs waiting for these results to become official, but I did have a chance to talk to his wife, Ann Romney, and she already has a sneaking suspicion what the results are going to be.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: Your husband on the trail has sounded very confident of late about his chances in Florida. What are you all expecting tonight?

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: We are expecting to win tonight. I think the exit polls are already indicating that, so we are looking forward to a win tonight.

CROWLEY: Big one?

ROMNEY: I don't know the answer to that. I don't know the answer to that. It would be wonderful to have it to be a big one.

CROWLEY: And are you concerned at all about the increasingly negative tone from both sides of this race? Do you think that hurts the Republican Party?

ROMNEY: You know, it is always unfortunate that politics has a negative side to it, but I am not going to be talking about that. I am going to be talking about the positive side of what I think Mitt can bring to the table.

And you know, I have seen him in all different situations in my lifetime, and I think right now the voters care about the economy and about jobs, and I think they want to turn to someone -- and I think Florida is really going to exhibit this, because Florida is really hurting.

It has been a heartbreaking trip for us to be here. I have got to tell you, I love this state. My parents lived here for a long time. It breaks my heart to see how many people are underwater in their homes and are out of work.

But I think people are hoping that Mitt, once he gets to the right job, can actually do something about turning this economy around. And I have seen him do it. I have seen him do turnarounds time and time again, and I have seen when institutions get in trouble, whether it is the Olympics or the state of Massachusetts or businesses, he is a turnaround guy. He fixes things. And I think people are going to say, it is time for somebody that has experience and that knows what they are doing to get in there and turn this country around.

CROWLEY: And last question. We have heard and seen your husband described as a liberal, a moderate, you know, a man from -- or a Democrat from Massachusetts. You describe him.

ROMNEY: It has been funny to me. I mean, what's next, a communist? I don't know. I mean, it's been humorous, because I know -- I know where his values are, you know, on a personal level. He is a conservative guy. I know how he has governed. It's been from a conservative point of view. I know how he will govern, which will be a conservative place, which is to rein in spending and to, you know, cut back on government excess. So you know, I think it's politics.

CROWLEY: Thank you so much, Mrs Romney. Have a good night.

ROMNEY: Thank you. Good, thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: So, pretty upbeat Ann Romney. And I can tell you, that's kind of across the campaign. I've talked to a couple of senior advisers of the Romney campaign, they, too, are very upbeat about tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I have spent some time with Mrs. Romney in Iowa. I got to tell you, she is a very, very lovely lady, very, very good -- a great asset for him out on the campaign trail as well.

All right. So, Candy, at some point tonight, we assume that Mitt Romney will be speaking at your location. Give us a little color, a little flavor of what's going on there right now.

CROWLEY: Well, first of all, I think that maybe you can see behind me, and, David, you can pan if you want, that the room has pretty much started to fill up very has started to fill up very early. In general, when a candidate -- when you believe a candidate is going to win, you show up early to get a good spot, so you can see and maybe shake his hand. They've already taken the lighting readings that the crews all want.

But, in general, they usually wait for the loser, and should that be Newt Gingrich, they usually wait for that speech to come before the winner comes out. But they're expecting an early evening here tonight. They believe, from their own internal polls, this will be a pretty good-sized victory for Romney. And so, you should probably see him fairly early.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, Candy is over there at Romney headquarters at Tampa, Florida.

We'll get ready to go back to you. Thanks very much. Thanks very much for speaking with Ann Romney as well.

Just minutes from now, maybe nine minutes, all the polling places in Florida will be closed. You will find out if -- if -- we're able to project a winner. We're looking ahead to the next contest in Nevada where undecided voters will share their thoughts on the Republican candidates and their speeches tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All the polls in Florida will close in a just little bit, more than five minutes. We'll see at the top of the hour if -- if -- we are able to project a winner.

But the polls in most of the state closed an hour ago or so ago. Let's take a look at the voting, the official numbers that have come in from Florida: 51 percent of the vote is now actually in. They're moving quickly in Florida, not even an hour after the polls closed -- 49,028 votes for Romney, that's 48 percent, to 314,764, 31 percent for Newt Gingrich, 13 percent for Santorum, 7 percent for Ron Paul.

A very, very impressive lead with more than half of the votes. These are actually votes. These aren't precincts anymore. These are voters that have actually been counted in Florida. Mitt Romney way ahead of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

Anderson, a lot to dissect. We're waiting at the top of the hour. Our experts are going through these numbers to see if we'll be able to project a winner.

COOPER: Yes. And, Ari Fleischer, you were looking at turnout numbers back from 2008, how it might compare to this year.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: One of the overarching factors through all primaries is how are you doing in terms of energizing people? And if you look at Republicans so far, in Iowa and New Hampshire, they broke the records in 2008, small amounts but they are still record-breaking. South Carolina, a massive shattering or record turnout, up by 33 percent.

So far in Florida, it looks like Republicans are running about dead even with the 2008 turnout, which was a record. But we'll have to see, really hopeful, if you're a Republican, to boost the 2008 number as a sign of intensity going into the general election.

COOPER: How did Mitt Romney turn it around? As you pointed out, I mean, it was a different story a week and a half ago -- two weeks ago.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He collapsed in South Carolina, oh, my God, the end of the Romney campaign. And we know the two things that turned it around for Romney in Florida. One was the advertising, especially the negative advertising. They defined Newt Gingrich unacceptably to Republican voters with a massive negative advertising campaign.

But the other thing, he had a strong debate performance and Newt Gingrich didn't. That demonstrated strength in presidential leadership.

My real question is: how did you get to those two places? What happened?

At some point after South Carolina, the candidate took hold of his campaign, sat down, must have sat down the team and said, look, it's time to focus.

Usually, campaigns -- candidates get the campaigns they deserve and the campaigns they earn. Somebody turned around that campaign and in my experience, that kind of leadership comes from the top. I think we're learning something about Mitt Romney here.

COOPER: Was it also, though, Newt Gingrich at the debates kind of taking a different tact, suddenly trying to be more -- going back to elder statesman?

CASTELLANOS: There's a lot of that. I have a friend that told me, you know the worst thing that can happen to a political candidate is to do something dump and get away with it.

Newt Gingrich really, I think, as Did said, didn't prepare for these debates. He kind of relies on his own brilliance, which is considerable. And that's great. He got away with it in South Carolina. He hit a home run.

Next time he went up to the plate, he whiffed. Next time he went up to the plate, he whiffed. You need more discipline than that because politics demands it.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He didn't have a strategy. He walked into that debate thinking Mitt Romney was scared of him, wasn't willing to fight back. Mitt Romney walked in and said, you know what? Every time you hit me, I will hit you three times and smack you over the head so you remember I hit you.

It was an amazing show of discipline on Mitt Romney's part. Newt Gingrich has to learn in a debate, you walk in with a strategy. In a campaign, you walk in with a strategy.

He has not had a strategy to win the debate or win on the ground. Instead, he's attacked the media and he's tried to do that dog whistle which helped him initially in South Carolina, but it clearly didn't help him in Florida.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He could have debated like Abraham Lincoln and lose Florida outspent five to one. You know, Napoleon said, God is on the side of the big battalions, OK? Voters usually on the side of big money particularly when this kind of asymmetrical spending is going on.

And Mitt Romney compounded that effectively by being negative in the debate. He was not only clever, which he was. He's quite gifted. But he was negative. He was negative in his speeches.

Negative campaigning works. And Ari points out, we might have a record turnout. So, this whole Mitt that oh, voters don't like it, and they all sit -- baloney, they love it.

FLEISCHER: We all differ with Paul here as I think the debates played the bigger role than the ads in Florida.

BEGALA: I don't think so.

FLEISCHER: People are watching things with their own eyeballs and making their own judgments this year. The exit polling shows it's more important than the advertising.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Sixty-one percent lied.

FLEISCHER: Republican voters in these debates have been out of control. Republicans love to watch these debates. Of course, Democrats don't. Republicans have been watching --

BEGALA: Ask people, they all say, you know, they say I watch PBS, they don't say I watch "Desperate Housewives." Well, they watch what's in the suburbs, they're not watching PBS. They just lie in the polls.

BORGER: Yes. But you can make the case, Paul, that the ads canceled each other out, that there were so many negative ads.

BEGALA: Five to one.

BORGER: Yes, but 92 percent of the ads were negative. So, you could argue they canceled each other out.

COOPER: We're getting very close to the top of the hour. So, I wanted to go back to Wolf, because we may be able to -- well, you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by. I think our viewers are probably going to be interested in what we have to report in a few seconds.

Just want to make it clear, most of the polls closed in Florida an hour or so ago. All of the polls including the western part of the state in the Panhandle will be closed in a few seconds. At that moment, we'll be able to presumably make some news right here at the CNN election center.

We want everyone right now to stand by. We're getting ready. It's almost the top of the hour. The polls will be closed in all of the state.