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Newt Gingrich Speaks at CPAC; White House Backs Down on Contraception Controversy; Conservative Heavy-Hitters Gather at CPAC

Aired February 10, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: Happening now: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum bring their increasingly bitter fight for the GOP nomination right here to Washington, D.C., at an influential gathering of the Republican conservative base.

Newt Gingrich is there, along with his wife, Callista. We will hear from both of them. They're getting ready to speak live in the next few minutes.

Also, the White House backs down from a controversy over contraception.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A sharp and sudden turnaround by the Obama administration caught off-guard by the intensity of a controversy over contraception. The White House now says it's tweaking the health care reform provision that sparked a sudden confrontation between church and state, as well as Republicans and Democrats.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM watching all of this unfold.

It was pretty dramatic what happened today.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was, and all of this caught the White House off-guard, as you said, Wolf. The White House now believes that it's found a work-around that will appease their usual liberal Catholic allies, but there's no sign that the uproar among conservative Catholics is dying down.


YELLIN (voice-over): After a messy bungled announcement, the president plays cleanup.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me repeat. These employers will not have to pay for or provide contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services just like other women. Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women.

YELLIN: The White House quickly sent out statements from liberal Catholics who opposed the first policy, but are hailing the work- around.

The Catholic Health Association says: "This resolution protects the conscience liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions."

E.J. Dionne, "Washington Post" columnist who helped kick up the firestorm over the policy to begin with, now writes: "President Obama did today what he should have done at the very beginning. He honored the fact that religious groups, including the Catholic Church, had legitimate religious liberty claims."

But the solution is stirring more outrage with conservative Catholics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It expresses an animus against the Catholic Church and other religions. And I think they made it worse today, quite frankly, because they raised our expectations, they gave us nothing in the end. They have just put some salt in the wounds.

YELLIN: According to the administration, the new rule takes the employer out of the equation. So women who work for religious institutions will still get contraception for free, but now their insurance company will have to provide it directly to the women at no charge. That way, the objecting religious institutions aren't paying for birth control.

The administration insists none of this was about politics.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: We know that 99 percent of women across this country use contraception at some point in their lives.

YELLIN: But angry Catholics disagree.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are now told that we have to provide for abortion-inducing drugs to some employee if she decides she wants it, and that we have to pay for it?


YELLIN: A big concern for some Catholic organizations is that some of them operate their own health insurance policies, and this would compel them to add new birth control and morning-after pill allowances they didn't have before. The administration is aware of this concern and says they're going to work with religious groups to figure out how to resolve that question -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume they acknowledge they wish they would have done this two or three ago, as opposed to having to go through these last couple weeks with this awkward situation.

YELLIN: Yes. They know they botched this one and they hope this cleanup will be enough to put it to rest.

BLITZER: We will see if it is. I suspect it won't be, but we will see. We will see if it is. The fight at the front of the Republican presidential race is right here in Washington, D.C., today with the three top candidates all speaking at an influential summit known as CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. We're going to be hearing from Newt Gingrich. He is getting ready to address the conference momentarily. He will be introduced by his wife, Callista. We will hear her as well.

But let's get the latest on the battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum from our CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta. He's over at CPAC.

What happened so far today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one thing is pretty clear. One big takeaway from CPAC, judging from his remarks, Rick Santorum is not running for vice president.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Rick Santorum came to the Conservative Political Action Conference ready to rumble with Mitt Romney. Take the stand-up routine from his top super PAC contributor Foster Friess.

FOSTER FRIESS, FOUNDER, FRIESS ASSOCIATES: There's a little bar a couple doors down. And recently, A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into the bar. The bartender says, hi, Mitt.


ACOSTA: Or Santorum's hard-nosed speech aimed at the former Massachusetts governor's health care plan.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And who has supported, in fact, the stepchild of Obamacare? The person in Massachusetts who built the largest government-run health care system in the -- in the United States.

ACOSTA: When we caught up with Santorum working the CPAC crowd, he defended the tough tone.

ACOSTA (on camera): You don't think it was too tough? You don't think it was over the top, stepchild of Obamacare?

SANTORUM: Look, it is Obamacare on the state level. And that's -- and he still continues to advocate for it. It's a top-down government control approach to solving the health care problem.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Among the conservatives milling around the CPAC spectacle, a few voters may be breaking Santorum's way.

Martha Stamp (ph), a Gingrich supporter, says she may change to Santorum.

ACOSTA (on camera): Why not Mitt Romney?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I will end up if I have to with him, but I don't trust him.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know conservatism, because I have lived conservatism.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But Romney was also at CPAC with a speech tailor-made for conservative skeptics, and he worked in a swipe at Santorum's record of voting for congressional pet projects when he was in the Senate.

ROMNEY: And let me tell you, any politician that tries to convince you that they hated Washington so much that they just couldn't leave...


ROMNEY: ... well, that's the same politician who will try and sell you a bridge to nowhere.


ACOSTA: In a sign he may be convincing some of his past critics, Romney got a boost from conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

ANN COULTER, AUTHOR, "GODLESS: THE CHURCH OF LIBERALISM": You can't call him dumb, you can't call him crazy. You can call him square. And that seems to be what a lot of right-wingers don't like.

ACOSTA: That's better than what Coulter said at last year's CPAC.

COULTER: Don't run, Chris Christie, Romney will be the nominee, and we will lose.

ACOSTA: Santorum surrogate Foster Friess was just as unpredictable on this day, saying the former Pennsylvania senator is now recovering from his days supporting earmarks.

FRIESS: I think Rick is in the recovery program.

ACOSTA (on camera): Rick is in the recovery program? How many steps is that program?

FRIESS: I think it's 12 steps.

ACOSTA: Which step is he on?

FRIESS: Well, he's pretty well through the 12 because he's realized the abuses that earmarks had.


ACOSTA: And there were other unscripted moments. Romney said he was "severely conservative" when he was governor of Massachusetts. That was not in his prepared remarks.

And there's one name that you haven't heard much today at CPAC, Newt Gingrich. He will be on this stage shortly. His top mission coming up in just a few moments, Wolf, get back into the conservative conversation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The former speaker will be introduced by his wife, Callista. You have been out on the campaign trail with Newt Gingrich for weeks, if not months. How unusual is this that we will actually be hearing from Callista Gingrich as well?

ACOSTA: That's a very good point, Wolf. We do not hear very much from Callista Gingrich. She does speak at some of these events, but not very often.

One reason is because they do know inside the Gingrich campaign that there are many conservatives who are uncomfortable with the way the Gingriches came to be married, and so far that reason, we haven't heard very much from Mrs. Gingrich. But perhaps today -- and I haven't been able to confirm this, but perhaps we will see more of Callista Gingrich moving forward.

There have been some conservatives, some Republicans inside the Gingrich camp who have advocated this for a long time. This may be the start of that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much. We will check back with you after the speeches, Jim Acosta, over at CPAC.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now.

Joining us in our "Strategy Session," Ron Brownstein is a senior political analyst for CNN, and also editorial director over at "The National Journal." Also joining us, the Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala, and Republican strategist Mary Matalin. She, of course, is a CNN contributor.

What do you make of Callista Gingrich, Mary, deciding she's going to introduce her husband at this very important meeting in Washington today?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's significant, and I think it's good.

There's no doubt that the spouses of these candidates can be and have been a great asset on the road. She clearly has the ear of her husband. By all reports, she's a preferred adviser. And people want to see who search is.

We who know her knows she's brilliant, and fun, and interesting, and articulate, and a good conservative, so I think it's a very good thing.

BLITZER: What do you think, Paul?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Mary is right. I have never met Mrs. Gingrich, but she's taken a lot of slings and arrows. A lot of the spouses have, and many of them really unfair, some of them part of what goes with being in politics. But I think it's a good thing for the reasons that Mary states. Certainly, Mrs. Obama is a great asset to the president. Mrs. Romney is an enormous asset. Mrs. Santorum busy sometimes with a desperately ill child for a while, but now she's back out on the campaign trail. So I liked it a lot. And I do think spouses should be off-limits. I don't want to see anybody attacking anybody's spouses.

BLITZER: And we even see Mrs. Ron Paul. She doesn't speak, but we see her show up at some of these events.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They can offer a kind of testimony, a kind of perspective that really no one else can. In that way, they kind of humanize a candidate more effectively than probably anyone else.

Having said that, it's Newt Gingrich who is really at the plate today who has to find a way to create a rationale for his candidacy going forward after Rick Santorum has seemingly eclipsed him again in this topsy-turvy race as the principal alternative to Romney.

BLITZER: It's true, because, Mary, in this new national tracking poll that Gallup puts out, they have Romney ahead, but now Santorum is second nationally among Republicans. Newt Gingrich is third. What does he need to do in this speech before CPAC today, Mary?

MATALIN: What does Newt need to do?


MATALIN: Well, he needs to get back on the track that led him to be the leader of the ABMs, the anybody but Mitts, and you never say never with Newt. But now he's challenging Santorum, who has made an equal or better case for his full-spectrum conservatism that connects the social, the economic, the defense conservatives in a more positive way.

That is what he has to do. He has to get on Santorum's track and prove that he could do it ultimately better than Santorum.

BLITZER: I interviewed Santorum today. And we will have that interview coming up later here on THE SITUATION ROOM, Paul. But he certainly has gotten some major momentum out of that trifecta, that sweep he had this week.

BEGALA: He has. And he's at his best when he's critiquing Romney's health care plan. He did it again today.

He did that in that debate and he carved Romney up. Romney is a smart guy. He's a good debater. But he had no answer because there is no answer. With Santorum, I would quibble a little. I would not say that Romneycare is the stepchild of Obamacare. I think it's the mother of Obamacare. It came first. And Obama was modeled on it.


BLITZER: Ron, and you know this. He made it today, he's made it repeatedly, that one of the great issues he says that Republicans and conservatives have in a general election against the president is what they call Obamacare, the health care reform law.

But if Romney is the candidate, they lose that playing card, if you will.

BROWNSTEIN: Of course, Romney says he can until play it. But as Paul says, there's enormous similarity between what they did in Massachusetts and what they did nationally.

Romney's speech was actually pretty well-received today. I was in the hall there when he gave it. But in other ways, the day really underscored the problem.


BLITZER: All right, hold on. Hold on, because Callista Gingrich is about to introduce her husband right now.

Let's listen in.