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Decision Day in Florida; Unrest in Syria; Obama Talks Openly About Drones; Gingrich: Won't Participate In Debates Moderated By Journalists; U.S. To Syria: Stop All Attacks; Romney Sings "America The Beautiful"; Federal Workers Get Better Benefits

Aired January 31, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: the GOP grudge match raging on until the very last minute in Florida. It's decision day in a critical state that could not only decide the Republican presidential nomination, but could also give us a very strong hint as to what might happen in November.

For the first time President Obama now talking openly about the secret U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda. Was it a slip-up in or was it a deliberate bit of strategy? We're looking at what the commander in chief was up to?

As the United Nations takes up a call for Syria's leader to step down, his regime lashes out. We have shocking images just coming in said to show the slaughter of a Syrian family. What their relatives want the world to see.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In just three hours, polls start closing in Florida. This Republican presidential primary is critical. It's winner take all, 50 delegates up for grabs, the biggest prize yet in the presidential campaign. We have had three contests, three different winners so far.

Tonight, Florida could make one candidate the clear front-runner or more.


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.


BLITZER: Mitt Romney has a clear lead in all the polls. A big win could start a domino effect leading up to Super Tuesday in March, or Newt Gingrich could rally and find new momentum. I write about this on my blog today. Florida will be a critical state in November.

It's the fourth largest state in the United States, and the only one of the top four that's likely to be a serious factor in November, a competitive factor. Florida is a classic swing state with a very diverse electorate. It's gone to the winner in the most recent presidential elections and it's often been close. Just remember what happened in Florida in 2000.

After a South Carolina victory, Newt Gingrich sailed into Florida with the wind at his back. That wind has clearly shifted, but Gingrich is vowing to press forward.

Let's go live to our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta. He has got the latest in Florida -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Florida may not go his way, but Newt Gingrich remains confident he can win the GOP nomination. And one thing is certain. He will take what happens here in Florida lying down.

Shaking hands and shaking off what appears to be a losing battle in Florida, Newt Gingrich made one thing clear. He is fighting on.


(on camera): Mr. Speaker, do you still see a path to the nomination after Florida?


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.

ACOSTA (voice-over): A Gingrich campaign memo to supporters points out that Florida, which was penalized for moving up its primary date, and only awards 50 delegates, is actually a smaller prize than the 76 at stake in Georgia.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Democrat and Republican alike by an overwhelming vote, they found him guilty of ethics violations.

ACOSTA: But there's still the matter of money. Gingrich and his super PAC were dramatically outspent by Mitt Romney and his super PAC on Florida's airwaves. In a state where an estimated 92 percent of the ads were negative, Gingrich conceded the damage was done.

(on camera): 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.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He really can't whine about negative campaigning when he launched a very negative campaign in South Carolina.

ACOSTA (voice-over): And Romney says that taught him a lesson.

ROMNEY: It will be pretty clear that when attacked, you have to respond, and you can't let charges go unanswered.

ACOSTA: Expect the GOP grudge match to go on for months. In the next contest, the foreclosure capital of Nevada, Romney is again hitting Gingrich for his ties to the mortgage lender Freddie Mac.

Gingrich has a new robo-call slamming Romney for vetoing kosher meals for nursing homes when he was governor of Massachusetts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Holocaust survivors who for the first time were forced to eat non-kosher, because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher.

ACOSTA: Asked about the robo-call by reporters, Gingrich said he had not heard of it.

(voice-over): How would he have felt about the way things have gone in Florida?

MICHAEL REAGAN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I think why father would really like to see a more positive campaign, but he also understood that this is what primaries really are all about.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Michael Reagan son of the former president, and Gingrich supporter, says his father's 11th commandment, thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican, no longer applies in the seek- and-destroy politics of now.

REAGAN: I joke with people. I say there's now a 12th commandment. Forget about that 11th commandment and let's get it on.


ACOSTA: Gingrich likes to say he's been dead before twice. Now the former speaker is predicting this campaign could go on for another six to eight months. For those who aren't keeping track at home, that's convention time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, in Tampa of all places, this year, as they say, Florida, Florida, Florida. Thanks very much, Jim.

As we just heard, the Republican grudge match will grind on and it's is already very, very nasty. What should we expect?

Joining us now, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Listen to this, Newt Gingrich, because as nasty as it is, it is getting even more nasty by the day.


GINGRICH: We can't beat all of the money power of Goldman Sachs and all of Romney's big money people. We can't beat the money power of Romney himself. We can't beat the dishonesty of his campaign by ourselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Dishonesty of his campaign, those are pretty strong words. Is this working for him?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think so far it's worked generally for Newt Gingrich, because he's an insurgent candidate.

And he gets his momentum from skirmishing with Mitt Romney. What he's done is he channels the anger of the Tea Party, the anti- establishment voters and the people who just don't like Mitt Romney. But -- but there's a problem with that if you want to sustain a campaign in the long term because in the long term voters want to know what they like about you as a candidate and what they can vote for you affirmatively for.

And so far, Newt Gingrich has been doing much less of that and much more attacking. In the long term, I don't think it's a workable strategy.

BLITZER: And more than 90 percent of all the advertising in Florida -- and it has been intense -- has been negative attack ads, not the positive, I'm a great guy, and all of that.


BORGER: And that hurts both of their likability, by the way, Romney and Gingrich.

BLITZER: Romney may still have a problem though with some conservative voters. He seemed to address that today.


ROMNEY: I have a conservative record as the governor of Massachusetts and that record is one I'm willing to stand by. By the way, even with regards to social issues, I was in a state where being a social conservative was not easy.

A bill came to my desk calling for cloning of embryos. I said absolutely not and I vetoed that. There was a bill on my desk that was providing greater access for the morning-after pill to young women. I vetoed that bill. I have a solid conservative record.


BLITZER: Does he have a problem though among some conservatives still?

BORGER: Well, he does. Among the most conservative voters -- take a look at this poll in Florida that NBC and Marist did, and they asked who do the very conservative voters support. You will see Gingrich beats Romney by about a dozen points.

This is Gingrich's opening here, and this is what his campaign sees as his opening, making the case to conservative voters that he's going to carry the Reagan mantle, that he's the true conservative. The question about Newt Gingrich is whether he has the discipline to do that and to just focus on his conservatism, as he sees it, rather than attacking Mitt Romney personally and Mitt Romney's character. He now has to make the larger case if he's going to sustain his candidacy.

BLITZER: All right, walk us through Newt Gingrich's strategy if he were to lose tonight.

BORGER: They argue the structure of the race and the geography of the states that are coming up can work to their advantage. The structure is that the delegates after Florida are distributed proportionally so it's no longer winner take all in most of these states coming up.

They also say the geography counts because there are states like Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee where they believe Newt Gingrich can start gathering a lot of delegates. They say it's going to be slow, and it's going to be painful for Romney, because they're just going to whittle away at him.

They also remind you that after tonight, only 5 percent of the delegates will have been chosen. Wolf, we're going to be at this for a while longer.

BLITZER: It will go on and on.

And there's a possibility Texas could be moved up as well?

BORGER: Texas is in April. It could switch back, actually, but Texas has got 150 delegates, 155?


BORGER: Yes. They say they're in this for the long haul.

Big question, of course, is money. Will their super PAC sugar daddy come through again? Will they be able to raise the money they will need?

BLITZER: And we're going to get hints about Florida in November tonight and what happens in this Republican primary. Remember in November the Democrats almost always win California and New York in a presidential race. The Republicans almost always win Texas. Those are the three largest, the fourth largest being Florida. So that's really the most competitive and most important right now.

BORGER: And it's such a diverse state, it sort of gives you a hint about Romney's strengths and Romney's weaknesses if he becomes the nominee heading into a general.

BLITZER: Gloria, thank you.


BLITZER: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum aren't expecting much in the winner-take-all state of Florida. They have already moved west, and they're looking for greener pastures. Rick Santorum is now in Nevada.

So is CNN's Dana Bash.

Dana, why is Santorum in Nevada? What's his strategy to stay in this race?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The answer is because he knew he was not going to do well at all in Florida.

As Gloria was just saying, that state is winner take all tonight. Even though 10 days ago he told you and I know he told me and others that he was definitely going to be campaigning in Florida, that did not work out. Now he has opened up this headquarters where I am in Las Vegas literally four days ago, four days ago.

As you can see, already, he's got some volunteers, not very many, but just a few. It's during the day here. It not bad, coming in, making calls, telling people, registered Republican voters, about Rick Santorum and about the caucuses and where they can go to vote for Rick Santorum on February 4.

This is obviously very different from what we thought would happen with Rick Santorum, that he would be pushing hard in Florida. But he decided to come west because of what also Gloria was mentioning, that this state as with others are proportional. Even if he can get three delegates on caucus night here, that could add up, especially if you look at other states that he's going to compete in, in this region for the next contest, which is February 7, and that's Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota.

They're hoping that with all of those, that he can at least get -- tick his delegate number up a little bit in order to stay in the race.

BLITZER: What have you learned about Rick Santorum's financial situation as far as his campaign funds are concerned?

BASH: He as in pretty good shape. His campaign is telling us that in January alone, he raised $4.2 million. Of course, the fact he did so well in the first contest of Iowa, that helped. And they say that the fact that he did well in some of the debates, including the one that you moderated last week, that that also helped with online fund-raising.

And he has $1.2 million in cash on hand. Now, Wolf, of course, anybody who even considers dropping out of the race, any race, it's because they can't financially afford to do it. Rick Santorum doesn't look like he's in that position, according to what his campaign is saying about the money he has.

And I can tell you I just spoke with a Santorum adviser. They are cutting a brand-new ad, not sure where it's going to run yet, but they still have all of the wheels in motion to keep going for quite a long time.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, thanks very, very much. I'm happy to report that Rick Santorum's daughter, Bella, 3-year- old little girl, is doing much, much better. We're all thankful or that.

President Obama, meanwhile, catches everyone off-guard talking publicly for the first time about U.S. drone attacks -- why it potentially could cause some trouble for U.S. allies.

Also, Newt Gingrich draws a line in the sand for debates if he is the Republican presidential nominee. There is one thing he says is a deal-breaker. We will explain.

Plus, Hillary Clinton lays down the law at the United Nations -- details of what she's condemning in -- quote -- "the strongest possible terms."


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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, at a time when the federal government should be making drastic spending cuts across the board, they might want to start with their own. A new report out of the Congressional Budget Office shows that federal workers get much better benefits, much better, including health insurance, retirement and vacation than workers in the private sector. On average, the federal government spends 48 percent more on benefits for its employees than private employers do.

As for salaries, federal workers make just 2 percent more than private sector workers and -- this is important -- there's a big difference when it comes to salaries when you break it down by education. For example, for federal workers with only a high school diploma, their benefits are 72 percent higher, their wages are 21 percent higher than they would be in the private sector.

But workers with doctorates or professional degrees are worse off working for the government. Their benefits are about the same and they earn 23 percent less than comparable people in the private sector earn.

The CBO suggests retirement benefits could be the key to all of this, because most retired federal workers gets pension and subsidized health insurance. Not so in the private sector.

Overall, it's estimated the government paid 16 percent more last year overall in salary and benefits than it would have for the same force in the private sector. There are roughly 2.3 million federal civilian employees, less than 2 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

Now in 2010, Congress and President Obama agreed to a two-year federal pay freeze, but the president now wants a 0.5 percent pay increase for federal workers in 2013. Hey, this is an election year, in case you've lost track.

Here's the question, do federal workers deserve better benefits and higher salaries than private sector employees?

Go to, post a comment on my blog, or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

America's drone war against terrorists is an open secret. But America's commander-in-chief has now openly raised it in an online forum, talking about the weapons' pinpoint accuracy. And that's raising some eyebrows.

Let's go live to our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, what's this all about?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it appears the president was trying to address concerns that civilians are killed in drone attacks, but he created a firestorm by even talking about the drone program in what was supposed to be an online video chat where he could take questions from regular everyday Americans.


KEILAR (voice-over): It was a question from Paris Patel (ph), a med student in Chicago, that prompted President Obama to do something he never had done before, acknowledged the existence of a classified and controversial drone program that targets militants and terrorists in foreign countries like Pakistan.

PARIS PATEL (ph), MED STUDENT: These drone attacks have caused a lot of civilian casualties. I'm curious to know how you feel they help the nation and whether you think they're worth it.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to make sure that people understand that actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.

KEILAR: Administration officials rarely talk about the program, because it puts leaders in countries like Pakistan in an uncomfortable position. They tacitly allow the strikes, but publicly condemn them because of public opposition. In November, a drone attack accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Fran Townsend was national security adviser to President George W. Bush. She supports the use of drone strikes but not discussing the program publicly.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Acknowledgement by the president of the U.S. drone program makes deniability by our allies far more difficult. It's one thing when the press talks about the drone program. It's another thing when the president or senior officials in the U.S. government confirm officially that it's U.S. policy.

KEILAR: That was evident in the White House briefing, as Press Secretary Jay Carney tiptoed around the target.

(on camera): Was it purposeful what he said?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, I would just refer you to what the president said and to note that the point he was making is that our counterterrorism efforts, by his order, include very concerted efforts to be targeted and surgical.

KEILAR: It doesn't address whether it was purposeful or not. I mean, that's what I'm asking, if he made a mistake.

CARNEY: He's the commander in chief of the armed force of the United States. He's the president of the United States. I would point you to his comments.


KEILAR: You can see just how sensitive this is, Wolf. When Jay Carney was asked multiple questions about this topic, he wouldn't even say the words "drones." This is a classified program. And at least publicly, Wolf, the White House doesn't want to touch it with a 10- foot pole. They don't want to talk about it anymore.

BLITZER: It's very unusual when a reporter, as you correctly point out, Brianna, when a reporter in a White House briefing asks the president's press secretary, did the president make a mistake? Did he slip up? You don't hear immediately "Of course not, he didn't make any mistake." You know, that's what you normally would hear from a press secretary. So you notice that, that's a good point. I spent many years in that seat covering presidential press secretaries. They always immediately come back and say, of course not, the president never makes mistake. But in this particular case, we shall she.

All right. Brianna, thanks very much.

The U.S. Navy to the rescue of an Iranian ship. We're learning more about what prompted the mayday call and extraordinary response.

Also, a birthday wish comes true for a little girl. Her emotional surprise reunion with her soldier -- her dad, talking about an emotional story.

Plus, the story behind this.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (singing): America, America, God shed his grace on thee.



BLITZER: The U.S. Navy rescues an Iranian boat.

Mary Snow is monitoring that and other stop stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it happened today in the Arabian Gulf where an American Navy strike group picked up a distress call from an Iranian fishing boat. A helicopter spotted the vessel drifting after its engine had overheated. A team from the guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones came aboard, and not only fixed the engine, but the damaged propeller as well, sending Iranian boat on its way.

Here in the U.S., Florida's python problem is worse than anyone imagined, according to a new study. Researchers say the snakes are wreaking havoc in the Everglades and have wiped out about 95 percent of the raccoon and opossum population in some areas. And there's no sign of rabbits or foxes. Florida's python population has exploded over the last decade as people release their pets into the wild.

And a 6-year-old Utah girl got what she says was the only thing she really wanted for her birthday. And what a surprise for little Bailey Page (ph) -- as she sat in her kindergarten classroom, her father, Sergeant Adam Page, home from the war in Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Guess what, Bailey? Turn around.



SNOW: Sergeant Page has been in the army seven years and been re-deployed to Utah. It will be the first time he's lived with his family since Bailey was born.

And, Wolf, I could watch this video over and over again.

BLITZER: Yes, so sweet, so nice. Happy for those kids, happy for the dads. Would like to see more of that happening every single day.

Thank you for sharing with our viewers.

Mitt Romney breaks out in a song.


ROMNEY (singing): For purple mountain's majesty, above the fruited plain --


BLITZER: All right. You're going to hear more of that serenade and what's behind it. Stand by.

And Newt Gingrich says he won't participate in debates moderated by journalists if he gets the Republican nomination. What is he thinking? What is he talking about? That's coming up in our strategy session.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer.

Here are some of the stories we're working on for the next hour:

The first exit polls from Florida, they'll be coming in soon. It will shed some light a what voters there are thinking on this very important primary election day.

And why intelligence officials now fear Iran is willing to attack the U.S. on its own turf.

Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get to our "Strategy Session" right now. Joining us our CNN contributors, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile and the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos. Guys, thanks very much.

Marco Rubio, the junior senator here in Florida, still a very powerful figure, he was on CNN with Soledad O'Brien earlier today. Listen to what he said.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I'm not going to speculate as to who is going to win, we're going to find out here fairly soon. Here's what I'm comfortable in saying though. I think that the winner of Florida will in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party.

And rightfully so, I mean, Florida, as you said, is a mini- America. I mean, virtually every issue that we want our nominee to be conversant on and convincing on is an issue that had to confront here in Florida.

So we'll wait for the results. I don't know what they're going to be. We all follow the polls, but let's see because we have, you know, we have an election week in Florida. People have been voting for more than a week with the absentee ballots.


BLITZER: Early voting and absentee ballots, maybe 600,000 of the 2 million or so have already voted even before this day. Alex, you agree with Marco Rubio that in all likelihood the winner of this primary in Florida tonight will be the Republican nominee?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I would say in all likelihood, but not in all certitude. Yes, Florida is a big state representative of the country, but you know, when you look at other states, Mitt Romney is winning tactical victories not strategic victories.

He's winning victories because he does negative ads, kills his opponents, has a lot more money, but hasn't won at the strategic level, at the message level. That's why it hasn't translated nationally.

Yes, Mitt Romney should win, but you know, Rubio could be wrong. He hasn't heard Mitt Romney sing evidently.

BLITZER: Let's not get carried away. We'll talk about that a bit later. The whole notion of Newt Gingrich's strategy, what is his strategy? Let's say he were to lose decisively in Florida tonight.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first of all less than 10 percent of the delegates will be selected by the end of the night. Newt Gingrich still has an opportunity if he has an organization, if he can find the money, to compete for about 180 delegates in the month of February.

Big prize on Super Tuesday on March 6, so there's no question that if he can go the distance to accumulate delegates especially if Mitt Romney cannot secure the nomination before mid-April, 1,144 delegates. So is there a path to the nomination?

Absolutely, but I don't know if Newt Gingrich, given the fact that his campaign, he's come back twice. He's had more rebounds than Larry Bird. If he doesn't show tonight that he can close the race, that he can compete and stop the establishment from piling it on, I think it will be really tough for him to secure the nomination.

CASTELLANOS: February looks really tough for Newt Gingrich. It's the march across the desert. There are very few primaries and caucuses and Newt Gingrich thrives off debate, guess what? He doesn't have much coming up. So he's going to need big money to get ready for Super Tuesday. Can he find that if he takes a big beating in Florida, maybe not.

BLITZER: Speaking of debates, he said this. It's a very controversial comment he made. I was frankly pretty surprised when he said it. As you know, as all of our viewers know, there are already three presidential debates scheduled for the fall before the November 6th election.

There's a National Presidential Commission that does this. The last debate will be in Boca Rattan at Lynn University. They already know where they are. They already have all the ground rules. They have all that worked out, yet he now says this --


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The reporters who run the debates have no interest asking any question, which will affect Obama. That's why -- that's why, as your nominee, I will not accept debates in the fall in which the reporters are the moderators. You don't need a second Obama person in the debate.


BLITZER: Alex, you think that's realistic? Those three presidential debates that the commission has organized, he's not going to be in those?

CASTELLANOS: I can't imagine that he really means this, but this is what scares Republicans about Newt Gingrich. Not just the establishment, everybody. That right underneath the surface there's an angry Newt who if he doesn't get his way, if things don't start going well for him, he's much more likable when he's behind and moving up.

But when he gets the lead, he seems to not be able to deal with responsibility real well, but this, he's also called Mitt Romney a maniacal liar. That's going over the line on some things.

He's coming unglued a little bit here at the tail end in Florida. If that's what people see over the next week nationally when they look at what happened in Florida, it will hurt him.

BLITZER: I was surprised because until recently he's done very well in the debates and keeping challenging the president to the debates.

BRAZILE: But remember he's playing to an audience that the Republicans must understand. They want red meat. They do not like the Washington establishment. They don't like the liberal elites.

Pretty much I can go on and on and then I would break into a song and you'll lose your audience. But let me just tell you this, Newt Gingrich, if he's the nominee, he will show up and he will compete in those debates.

CASTELLANOS: You don't turn down an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. Maybe Gingrich we'll need a teleprompter, too.

BLITZER: He needs more than a teleprompter that at this point.

BLITZER: Thanks very, very much. There will be three presidential debates. The Republican nominee, the Democratic nominee, they will be there I can guarantee you that.

Tough talk on Syria from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as gruesome new atrocities come to light on this day. We have new video of an alleged brutality on a shocking scale.


BLITZER: Another three dozen people were reported killed in Syria today, as heavy fighting increasingly involves the use of heavy weapons by the Damascus regime.

Arab leaders told the United Nations Security Council today Syria is operating what they called a killing machine against protesters, and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just weighed in.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States urges the Security Council to back the Arab League's demand that the Syrian government immediately stop all attacks against civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations.

We all know that change is coming to Syria, despite its ruthless tactics, the Assad regime's reign of terror will end and the people of Syria will have a chance to chart their own destiny.


BLITZER: CNN's Arwa Damon is just back at Beirut from a government approved visit to Syria. She has a report about how innocent people are being caught in the brutal response to the uprising. I must warn you it includes some extremely disturbing videos.

Most viewers will find some of these images very difficult to watch. We thought it was important for you to see it. In fact, within CNN, we've decided to show much of it without blurring, warning you first as I'm doing right now.

Relatives of the victims uploaded these victims for the world to see. Let's go to Arwa right now for more -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is exactly, as you mentioned why it is so important for people to see these imaging no matter how difficult they are to look at because they underscore just how crucial it is for the Syrian uprising to be resolved.


DAMON (voice-over): It's the latest nauseating video posted online in the nearly 11-month old Syrian uprising. Six members of one family, we're told, four young children and their parents slaughtered.

Look, his hand is still gripping his mother's hair, the voice on the tape says. Look at his arm. Look what they have done to him, the man continues. How much longer can we bear this as the camera moves over the lifeless body?

Their mother lies on the floor next to them, one of her eyes gouged out, an image too gruesome to show. Opposition activists who blamed government loyalists for the killings say the video was shot in the neighborhood in the flash point city of Homs.

The second such video too emerge from that very same neighborhood. This clip was posted on Thursday. Eight members of the same family killed. Most of them were children. CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos or who was responsible for the death.

But the images speak for themselves. In some parts of Syria, the killing seems to be growing more barbaric by the day. The battles more intense. On a recent government-sponsored trip to Homs while briefly allowed access to Syria, we saw firsthand how tenuous the situation had become.

The government only deemed one neighborhood safe enough for us to visit. A predominantly Christian one and even there gunfire echoed down the alleyways. People on both sides of the spectrum and those caught in between. Fearful and angry.

Videos posted since then appear to show fierce pitched battles between armed rebels and government forces as the Syrian regime renews its efforts to regain control in Homs and other areas.

A massive plume of black smoke from a damaged oil pipeline engulfs nearby buildings as gunfire echoes in the background, just a little image from 11 months of devastation and death.


DAMON: And Wolf, that right there just showing you why it is so important that some kind of resolution come about to the Syrian uprising. The longer this drags on, not only the deadlier does it become, but we could potentially reach the point of no return, that is, of course, assuming Syria is not there already -- Wolf.

BLITZER: No signs though that the government of President Bashar Al- Assad is backing down at all. Have you seen anything along those lines?

DAMON: No, we haven't. In fact, by all counts seemed especially in the last week that the military offensive has intensified with the crackdown increasing not only in Homs, but also like in the suburbs of Damascus.

It is also important to remember with the resolution that's being talked about at the United Nations that discusses some sort of handover of power, paving the way for a national unity government and for free and fair elections, that was put forward by the Arab League a little over a week ago.

That was already rejected by the Syrian government. When we look at all the people who spoke during -- addressing the United Nations, whether it's the United States, the secretary-general of the Arab League or even the Syrian ambassador himself, everyone is standing incredibly firm. We're not seeing a lot of compromise there nor we're seeing a lot of compromise on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon reporting for us, what a sorry. Arwa, thanks very much. Unfortunately that story is not going away.

Strong warnings from one of the country's top intelligence officials about the kinds of plans Iran might be plotting against the United States. It's an eye-opening report. Stand by for that.

Plus, we're waiting for the first exit polls in today's Florida primarily, only about 20 minutes or so away.


BLITZER: Herman Cain did it, so did President Obama few days ago, but Mitt Romney caught everyone by surprise when he burst so song at a Florida campaign event.

Romney was reminiscing about how his parents took him on trips to see the beauty of America. Watch as he gets inspired to break into song.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I love this country, Ann said that earlier. I love America. There's a song that captures that for me, "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, for amber waves of grain for purple mountains' majesty across the fruited plain. Can you sing that song? I love that song. I love this country.


BLITZER: Guts for him to do that. All right, for complete political coverage all the time, be sure to read our ticker on

Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File." Do you want to sing a few bars of that, Jack?

CAFFERTY: That's not singing what he was doing. That's the kind of sound a person makes when they're being waterboarded. Just awful.

BLITZER: It wasn't that bad.

CAFFERTY: He didn't spend any time obviously in the same churches that Barack Obama did when he was a kid. The question this hour is do federal workers deserve better benefits and higher salaries than private sector employees?

Chandler in New Jersey writes, "It's not a question of what they deserve. In the past the deal with government work was you didn't get paid as much as the private sector, but the benefits were comparative generous.

Private sector jobs used to come with pensions and subsidized retiree health care, too. What has happened is not that government workers are on overcompensated, but wage versus so beaten down that government jobs now look good by comparison."

Tim writes, "Good question. Yes, low level federal employees are overcompensated. But lower level private employees are also undercompensated. Higher level federal employees are probably about perfectly compensated, but the higher level private employees could do with a haircut."

Dave in Florida writes, "It's a trick question, right? Are we talking about the same bureaucrats that keep throwing red tape at you, keep you standing in line or on hold for hours? Who treat you like livestock who do in one month what the rest of us can do in an hour, who can't understand that because you're out of work, you can't give a pace of employment? The people who can only get government work because they could never keep a real job in the real world."

Gordon in New Jersey writes, "There's no easy answer to this. If you want to hire federal securities examiners that can go toe to toe with Wall Street lawyers, you're not going to get the best people to work for teachers' salaries. At the same time, there are probably quite a few people in government who hold do little and get comfortable salaries."

And Pete in Georgia says, "This is a trick question, right?" If you want to read more about this, you can go to my blog, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you. I'm not going to sing and you're not going to sing. We'll leave that to others. Appreciate it.

All right, we're standing by for the first exit polls from Florida. They'll be coming in shortly. What will they reveal about this closely watched primary?

Also a view of CNN you don't usually get to see behind the scenes of our primary coverage. Our own Brooke Baldwin is in Tampa. She's joining us with that.


BLITZER: Mary Snow is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Mary, what else is going on?

SNOW: Wolf, a very profitable fourth quarter for Exxon. The company is reporting a net income of $9.4 billion. The company can thank higher oil prices. They jumped 25 percent in the last three months of 2011.

Fox News is learning the hard way don't mess with the Muppets. It all started with this segment on Fox Business Channel, slamming the new "Muppet" movie in which the villain is an oil baron. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is liberal Hollywood using class warfare to brainwash our kids?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. They've been doing for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This brainwashing in the most obvious form. I wish liberals could leave little kids alone.


SNOW: Well, Kermit and Miss Piggy were asked about that at a news conference in London promoting their new movie. Kermit denied any prejudice against oil companies noting the Muppets spend much of the movie in a gas-guzzling Rolls-Royce. Miss Piggy was much more succinct.


KERMIT THE FROG: They were concerned about us versus a prejudice and I can tell you categorically that's not true. If we have problems with oil companies, why would we have spent the entire film driving an in a gas-guzzling Rolls-Royce.

MISS PIGGY: Almost as laughable as accusing Fox News, you know, as of being news.

KERMIT: Boy, that's going to be all over the internet.

MISS PIGGY: Yes, yes, when I say things seriously, they have a real big problem.


SNOW: There you have it.

BLITZER: Guys, how cute are they, Mary?

SNOW: Very. I know that Kermit made an appearance with you a couple months ago.

BLITZER: He was a guest in THE SITUATION ROOM. How cool was that? Mary, thanks very much.

All of us love the excitement of a primary night. It's a huge, huge team effort, not just tonight, but also right now in Tampa where Brooke Baldwin will take us a little behind the scenes -- Brooke.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, this is our beautiful Tampa, Florida backdrop. This is really the epicentre of where we're covering politics for the primary today.

We wanted to show you behind the scenes, so let's spin around. You see me going live, all kinds of lights, obviously a camera, but look down the way.

You have Hala Gorani is set up for CNN International. We have CNN news source, Sandy Endo going live there. Another camera location, and swinging to the right one more for CNN Espanol. Total five cameras out. Now let's go inside.

So this is where Christine and I we're logging our scripts, writing our pieces or keeping. Are you having fun?


BALDWIN: OK, so this is one table. Take a look inside the workspace. So we have folks here from different shows, booker, espanol. This is SPEV, sort of like SEAL Team 6 for CNN. Emily Rust, what exactly do you do?

EMILY RUST, PRODUCER, CNN SPECIAL EVENTS: We set up live locations all around the state, candidate headquarters, polling places, ballot camps, everything you see live on CNN, plus workspaces for all our correspondents.

BALDWIN: Are you exhausted?

RUST: We haven't slept in a while, but we're having fun.

BALDWIN: Thanks, Emily. Now to Paul Steinhauser. Paul Steinhauser, we see you all the time. You're always the guy crunching numbers, talking politics, when is the last time you saw your little girl?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: It's been a couple of days. I did get home for the weekend for my wife's birthday.

BALDWIN: What is it about politics behind the scenes that's so cool?

STEINHAUSER: Covering politics is like covering sports. I mean, there's winners, there's losers, but a heck of a lot more at stake at the end of the day. We're talking about people's lives, government, taxes, health care. That's why politics is fun, but it also has so much importance to it.

BALDWIN: We're in Florida, what's next for you? Where is your next plane ticket?

STEINHAUSER: Going home to D.C. for a day, then out to Nevada. We got the caucuses on Saturday. After that, stay tuned.

BALDWIN: OK, let's show you something else. Wolf, this is a very important table. This is sustenance, breakfast, lunch and dinner, rule number one, carry the tripod, rule number two, feed the crew. This is very important.

OK. So that's pretty much it. I've got to get ready for another live shot. We're busy here in Tampa. They're scouting out a shot. I'm getting up back here. Wolf, I will see you on television.